Foot in the Door to Nowhere?

Many years ago, social psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser conducted research on a previously unstudied influence tactic called the “foot in the door technique.” The approach involves preceding a request for some behavioral change that people are unlikely to initially agree to with a smaller request that a sizable majority of people would agree to. In their research, they found that housewives who complied with a request to answer questions about what household products they used were more than twice as likely to allow the researchers, who posed as representatives of a consumer group, to visit their homes and conduct an inventory of their household products than those who were only presented with the larger request. Similarly, they found that individuals who initially agreed to put a small sign in their window promoting safe driving were more than twice as likely to later agree to put an extremely large “Drive Carefully” sign in their yard as those who had not initially been presented with the smaller request. Dozens of subsequent studies found that, although the degree of success varied, the foot in the door technique was generally successful in increasing compliance with requested behavioral changes, including engaging in recycling, donating money to charity, becoming an organ donor, and many others.

Recently, some animal advocates have attempted to frame the longstanding practice in the animal rights movement of promoting dietary changes short of going vegan, such as “Meatless Mondays” or going vegetarian, as examples of the foot in the door technique, and argued that the efficacy of asking for such smaller changes is supported by social psychological research. Nick Cooney, for example, claims that research on the foot in the door technique implies that asking people to cut back on meat or go vegetarian will be more effective in getting people to consume fewer animal products, and ultimately to go vegan, than asking them to go vegan directly.

Is this a justifiable claim? What door is it that we have our foot in if we’ve successfully gotten people to give up meat on Mondays, or even altogether? Is it a door that leads to veganism and, ultimately, animal liberation, or is it perhaps a door to nowhere? And are those employing this technique doing anything to pry the door open all the way, or are they perhaps taking their foot out of the door and letting it be slammed in their face?

It should be noted that, although framing it in terms of the foot in the door technique is a relatively new phenomenon, the above approach of asking for less-than-veganism from people is anything but new. Compassion Over Killing, founded in 1995, describes its mission as “expos[ing] cruelty to farmed animals and promot[ing] vegetarian eating as a way to build a kinder world.” COK has been heavily involved in promoting the Meatless Monday campaign, and plays up the many supposed benefits of “simply…choosing vegetarian foods just one day a week.” Mercy For Animals’ literature is as apt to promote “vegetarian eating” as veganism. The same is true for Farm Sanctuary, as well as (despite its name) Vegan Outreach.

In fact, argues Roger Yates, unequivocal promotion of veganism as the moral baseline for those who believe animals have the right not to be exploited by humans—that is, the least one who holds this philosophy can do and still be consistent with it—was not widespread until fairly recently. What Cooney and others are framing as an instance of the foot in the door technique has arguably been the dominant approach in the movement since long before this notion was proposed. And how well has it worked? One indication actually comes from the research of Cooney himself and his colleagues in Faunalytics (formerly the Humane Research Council): A survey of 1,387 current and former “vegans” (defined strictly in terms of dietary practices) and vegetarians found that there were more than six times as many former vegetarians as current vegetarians.

And in reality, a closer look at research on the foot in the door technique shows that its effectiveness is highly variable; sometimes there is a moderate to large effect, sometimes there is little or no effect, and sometimes the technique even backfires. Moreover, as anyone with some background in psychology is aware, there are a huge variety of effective means of exerting social influence. One of them, the so-called door in the face technique, is precisely the opposite in approach from the foot in the door technique in that it involves first making a large request that people are likely to refuse and then following it with a smaller request—and research finds it equally as effective as foot in the door. When I was a phone canvasser for the Citizens Action Coalition, a consumer and environmental organization, we employed this technique to great effect, asking those we called for a contribution of $600—a request that was almost always refused—followed by a much smaller donation request of $50.

Why are many animal advocacy groups so wedded to the “ask for something less than veganism first” version of the foot in the door technique, if it can even be called that given that there is often no later request to go vegan—but so reluctant to employ the equally effective door in the face technique? Why, for example, is it so rare for animal rights activists to at first ask people to go vegan and become an activist for animal rights (prefaced, of course, with a persuasive message designed to convince them that this is the right thing to do), and if agreement is not forthcoming, make a smaller request such as “Would you be willing to eat vegan for one meal a day?” (In my experience, people are no more likely to run away screaming upon hearing the above request than they are if asked for a $600 donation.) For that matter, why do these groups not employ a version of the foot in the door technique where they first ask for a behavior consistent with the ethical stance against animal exploitation that underlies a vegan lifestyle, such as eating vegan for a week, rather than ask people for a behavioral change such as cutting down on meat consumption that involves still supporting animal exploitation and killing three meals a day, every time they buy shoes, etc.?

One reason, presumably, is fear. Leading proponents of the “ask for less” approach have frequently expressed the concern that those who advocate “strict” veganism will typically be perceived as “fanatical,”purist,” “extreme,” or “crazy,” and that advocating veganism off the bat will lead to people not making any changes at all. They make, in the absence of any evidence, the assumption that becoming vegan is less sustainable than a small dietary change. But, when one closely examines the public’s attitudes toward animals—contradictory and deeply speciesist though they are—are these fears really justified? Tens of millions of Americans love dogs and cats as family members. When I ask my psychology students how many of them think it’s wrong to harm animals unnecessarily, the hands go up unanimously in almost every class. When I follow that question with “How many of you eat meat?” many of them appear embarrassed by their inconsistency. According to recent polls, 74% of Americans believe that “humans have an obligation never to harm animals,” and 32% believe that “animals deserve the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation.”

Furthermore, people can be induced to believe some pretty “crazy” things, even if presented by an opinion minority, if they are advocated consistently. In one study, accomplices of the experimenter constituting two of the six members of groups consistently claimed that slides that were clearly different shades of blue were green. Even though they were polled privately about the colors they saw, the “real” participants called obviously blue slides “green” 9% of the time, and 32% of participants gave at least one “green” response. At least some of the time, then, rather than believing their own eyes, participants in this experiment believed a “crazy” but persistent minority. If that much influence by a minority on the beliefs of the majority is possible when the position being advocated is patently false, imagine how much influence a minority can have when the position being advocated is based on obviously valid claims, such as that animals have feelings, just like us.

Another important distinction, I think, between the “ask for less” faction and those of us who are “crazy” enough to think that you can get (some) people to go vegan if you consistently advocate it and present a compelling case is in our philosophical positions, including how we conceptualize our advocacy. The former frame what they are trying to accomplish in behavioral terms—they are trying to get people to change their diet, specifically to reduce their consumption of animal products. Veganism, according to Vegan Outreach, is merely a “tool to reduce suffering” entailing a diet that contains no animal products. And since any diet containing fewer animal products than the one a person ate before is reducing suffering, any dietary change in that direction is a “success” to be celebrated, regardless of whether it is a vegan diet. Similarly, there is no mention in Mercy For Animals’ literature or on their Web site of animals having the right not to be exploited or killed, the right not to be treated as a piece of property. Rather, the focus is on reducing cruelty. A recent study by the Humane League Labs purporting to show that asking people to “cut out or cut back on” meat consumption was more effective at reducing animal product consumption than asking people to “eat vegan” actually found that none of the requests the researchers made of the participants were effective in getting them to significantly reduce animal product consumption. Why might that be?

For us, like the founders of our movement, veganism is not merely a diet, but a philosophy that human exploitation of animals is unethical, and a social movement to liberate animals from that exploitation. Success is measured not merely in terms of short-term reductions in animal product consumption; rather, on an individual level success means getting individuals to deeply commit to the idea that animals are not ours to use, and on a societal level it means propagating that philosophy to ever-increasing numbers of people who are willing to act on it. Abstaining from animal product consumption—“going vegan”—is a logical consequence of believing that animals are not ours to exploit, but it isn’t going to happen, or if it does it isn’t going to be sustained, unless individuals can be convinced of that philosophy. And therein lies the likely reason for the Humane League study’s lack of success in convincing participants to change. They were all given information that discussed the cruelty of “factory farming,” but none were given an animal rights message. Perhaps the researchers, and others who follow their recommended “baby steps” policy, ought to be less obsessed with figuring out what initial behavioral change they should advocate and more concerned with what they convey about why people should change their ways. The animals have nothing to lose but their chains, and they are tired of waiting for activists to stop asking people to hurt them less and start insisting on their liberation.

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A social justice activist throughout his adult life, Jeff became a social psychologist because he wanted to better understand why injustice happens and how to fight for change. In 1997 he read Diet for a New America and became vegan overnight. Ever since, he has lain awake at night wondering why vegans can’t all just get along, and when the long-lost child of the left known as the animal rights movement will ever find her parents. An organizer with Direct Action Everywhere for two years, Jeff recently co-authored a letter to Whole Foods, signed by 26 animal rights organizations, calling them out on their humane meat propaganda. In his spare time, he likes to play racquetball, watch his son bamboozle opponents on the soccer field, waste far too much time on Facebook, and spend time with his canine, leporine, and human companions.