Don't "Raise Awareness"

In an early analysis of efforts to convince people to act more pro-environmentally, Burgess et al. present the following flowchart on how people's minds change:

It seems pretty straightforward. It's also completely wrong.

In a later metasurvey, Kollmuss and Agyeman say:
These models from the early 1970s were soon proven to be wrong. Research showed that in most cases, increases in knowledge and awareness did not lead to pro-environmental behavior. Yet today, most environmental Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) still base their communication campaigns and strategies on the simplistic assumption that more knowledge will lead to more enlightened behavior. 
Problems go even further. Kollmuss and Agyeman add that "quantitative research has shown that there is a discrepancy between attitude and behavior." Wong and Sheth agree, saying that the relationship between beliefs and behavior is generally found to be "low and nonsignificant."

25% of Americans tell pollsters that "Animals deserve the same rights as people," yet only 2% are vegan. Unless a quarter of Americans believe it's ok to torture humans to death for their flesh, that's a pretty big gap between beliefs and behavior.

Henry Spira, one of the most effective animal advocates of all time, noted this problem in his list of tips for advocates when he disparaged "raising awareness". It's very easy to convince ourselves that we're building "mindshare" even if people's behaviors don't change, but without the explicit measurement of the sort that EAA's Top Charities do we're probably just building castles in the air.


  1. My comment hit the character-count limit, so I'm splitting it into two parts. :)


    Thanks, Ben! I like this post a lot. As others have said in the Facebook discussion of this piece, it does seem as though behavior drives attitudes potentially more than attitudes drive behavior. Even requiring people to do X can actually make them more favorable to X in the long run, although there are obvious counterexamples.

    That said, I think there are important clarifications to make about when this rule does and does not apply. For individual behavior -- recycling, saving for retirement, exercising, getting cancer screenings, wearing seatbelts, etc. -- the best approach probably is to make the behavior mandatory, or opt-out rather than opt-in, or at least extremely easy.

    But there's a chicken-and-egg problem here: What do you do in order to change the policies in the first place to make these behaviors required? Well, for that, it seems there's no alternative but to "raise awareness" in the sense of lobbying for political action. You have to build a movement of supporters, show people why the policy needs to change, and then apply pressure on governing bodies. There's no way out of raising awareness to a certain degree as a means to get things done. Raising awareness as a distributed approach toward changing the behavior of every individual? No. But raising awareness among a subset of the population who can be a lobbying force for policy changes? Yes, unavoidably.

    Another example: Why did you write this blog post? For no other reason that to raise awareness among activists about strategic considerations. (Ok, maybe you also did it because it was fun. :) ) Even though you couldn't easily measure the long-range impact of writing this piece, you suspected that the expected value was pretty high, on the off chance that your argument might persuade someone to pursue a higher-value strategy. I agree with this reasoning.

    Third observation: If the intention-behavior relationship is "low and nonsignificant," why do companies spend billions and billions of dollars on advertising every year? I don't think they're fooling themselves about the effectiveness of ads. They probably have some of the best reserach out there about how much advertising leads to behavior changes. Maybe there's a disconnect between this fact and the results from the studies you cited. I don't know without looking into it further.

    Finally, there are some issues that almost need to remain at the policy level. There's no such thing as requiring people to take actions to help with the problem of, say, US military aggression overseas. Sure, you can protest and do other symbolic actions, but these are precisely about raising awareness rather than having a direct impact. Lobbying and outreach are the only ways to go here. Does that mean we shouldn't invest in these kinds of issues? No, it just means that our strategy will inherently be about changing hearts and minds rather than changing behavior.

  2. Now, to get to the point. This conversation sprung out of a discussion on the idea of spreading concern for wild-animal suffering, with the aim of encouraging future civilization to think twice before multiplying wild-animal suffering into space or in simulations. One legitimate criticism of this approach is that it relies only on raising awareness rather than direct behavior modifications. But as we saw above, this is true of many issues that lie at the level of government policy, and yes, most likely preventing the spread of wild-animal suffering would be a matter for governments of the future to legislate upon. There's not much an individual could do about it, whether now or in the future, except maybe to avoid buying SimNature software that simulates wildlife to sufficient granularity that the component animals actually feel pain.

    That future wild-animal suffering can only be addressed by awareness-raising may be a drawback, but I think it's not a big drawback, and the amount of animal suffering at stake is orders of magnitude beyond what's at stake for any other animal issue. Risky? Yes. But a risk worth taking? I think so. The expected value is just too high.

    In any event, it's easy to underestimate the power of raising awareness. Consider the civil-rights movement. Part of the reason for greater tolerance toward blacks was due to enforced change (e.g., required desegregation of schools), but as far as I know, a decent part of it was purely an intellectual/cultural shift in social consciousness. Once something like that takes hold, it seems hard to imagine going back. Similar for women's rights, gay rights, and the rest. If we can do something analogous for wild animals -- making it conventional wisdom that the suffering of animals in nature is no more acceptable than the suffering of humans from cancer or starvation -- then wild animals will be on the agenda, and future electoral debates will include this as an issue.

    25% of Americans supporting animal rights may not lead to huge behavior change (what about the number of vegetarians, though?), but it's better than nothing, because (a) those people will be easier to persuade going forward, and (b) those are the people who will be your base in advocating political changes. They may not be vegan, but probably they're going to care about humane-slaughter legislation or seeing their school buy cage-free eggs. They're also going to be some of the biggest advocates of meat substitutes. And so on. I'm not suggesting that raising awareness of factory farming without promoting veg*ism is optimal; probably it's not. But the awareness raising has nontrivial value, and in the realm of wild animals, where the stakes are orders of magnitude higher, and where awareness raising (aka movement building) are all we can do, that's where I'd put my money.

    P.S., your blog looks absolutely fascinating. :D We seem to share a lot of interests even beyond animal advocacy.

    1. Great points as always! I specifically like your thought that ads must be useful because otherwise companies wouldn't buy them.

      There are several different ways in which beliefs can become more correlated with action:

      1. Temporal nearness. Ads for a sale are a form of "raising awareness" as you point out - but they are rarely more than a few weeks in advance.
      2. Specificity. How you feel about "philanthropy" probably has poor correlation with your actions, but how you feel about requiring charities to give evidence of their effectiveness probably correlates well with your giving habits. (Or at least that's my hope with this blog.)
      3. Locus of control. I feel fairly confident that I can control whether or not I buy Coca Cola.

      And so on. It's not clear to me how WAS messages can meet these criteria.

      RE ending slavery etc.: Encyclopedia Britannica cites economic and technological reasons for the decline of slavery, rather than any activism per se. (The Quakers, who probably make a good analogy as a small group of people ahead of their time, are not mentioned as being remarkably effective.)

      I don't want to claim that advocacy for WAS is pointless. I just want to point out that:

      1. There is little evidence that WAS advocacy is helpful
      2. Often when people believe they are helping but have no evidence of it, they are wrong.

    2. I agree that those factors help explain why advertising messages have an edge over many other forms of awareness raising. However, there's no denying that some philosophical messages are sticky.

      For example, consider religion. Very often religious commitments contradict economic incentives. Sure, sometimes religion is used as a tool of control (e.g., by the Catholic church) or for other expedience. But many times, people care about religious values _in spite of_ other forms of self-interest. Hundreds of millions of people in India are vegetarian out of religious belief and cultural tradition.

      Another example: Opposition to gay marriage. This is not driven by economics or technology. This is purely about human psychology latching onto a cause and pushing it into the political sphere. Same for stem-cell research, abortion, flag burning, abstinence-only education, and most of the other "social issues." These are clear examples where ideology is the driving force behind political policies.

      If WAS can become an ideology of this kind -- not a message like "you should exercise more" but a core belief of a large number of people -- then there's room for the right political action when the time comes. I don't claim this is likely to ever happen, but it could, and the stakes are too high not to shoot for it.

      What's the alternative? Is there a better way to prevent future humans from multiplying WAS? I'd love to hear suggestions. :)

    3. Good point about religion - I'm not certain that things like abortion are great examples (as they've been promoted by religion as areas of concern only recently), but the point is well taken that e.g. Buddhism's concern with suffering appears to have (more or less) stayed intact over the last 2.5k years.

      You've said elsewhere that the major reason you support VO etc. is because it makes people more considerate, and that serves as a proxy measure for concern about WAS. I think I would (roughly) support that - it forces people to put some money where their mouths are, so to speak.

  3. Great points Brian (and Ben)! I thought I'd chime in just to make a quick point. I think there's a third option that sort of falls between raising awareness and direct behavioral change: Appealing to people's emotions. I think videos on factory farming aren't effective so much because they raise awareness as because they create disgust and discomfort at the idea of eating meat. Same thing with ads - they create emotional associations with their product (e.g.,. 'that soda will make me happy' or 'that cologne will make me confident').

    I think the WAS movement needs to reach people on an emotional level. I think what is arguably our biggest disadvantage (that we can't ask people for behavioral change, at least for now) is also our biggest advantage. In other words, since most people aren't personally invested in WAS like they are in a problem like factory farming, they will probably be more receptive to changing their attitude about it. In any case, I think we need to put this issue on people's emotional radar by hitting them on a gut level like videos of factory farming. We need to use powerful imagery and stories, not just statistics.

    1. Good point - emotional appeals are very important!

      The linked Kollmuss and Agyeman paper above devotes the last couple pages to emotional involvement. Note they say that locus of control is a "decisive factor for action" in emotional appeals - a factor that WAS lacks.

      That's not to say that emotional appeals won't be effective for WAS. My concern is just that we don't know if they will be effective, and furthermore there seems to be *no way of knowing* how effective our appeals are.

    2. "and furthermore there seems to be *no way of knowing* how effective our appeals are."

      In our original Facebook conversation, I said:
      One can identify lots of SMART subgoals, like number of members/supporters of [our wild-animal charity], number of views/shares/likes of articles, number of people reached by articles/leaflets, funds raised, number of publications, number of people influenced to write about the topic, etc. Really, the goals aren't that different from those of veg outreach or any marketing campaign. How do marketers for Bing measure their success? By people reached, traffic to the website, opinion surveys, etc. We can do basically the same things here.

      Now, granted, these are just subgoals, and I think your point is that even if we achieve these subgoals, it doesn't mean we've succeeded in the long term at changing political policies around WAS 200 years down the road.

      We can be creative and aim to come up with better metrics. But even in the worst case, where we don't find better metrics, the expected-value argument won't go away. If there's even a small chance we're making things better, WAS meme-spreading is a lottery whose tickets we should buy.