Most people resist changing their opinions or behavior. But when they decide that change is advantageous, their resistance melts away and they can transform themselves. A crucial part of this process is repetition. A lifelong smoker might not choose to give up cigarettes the first time she reads a study about the dangers of tobacco. She might even look for contrary evidence to reinforce her desire to continue. But if her daughter confronts her and asks her to change, more studies about lung cancer appear in the news, and her doctor raises the subject during a checkup, our smoker might finally choose to quit.
I’m always trying to find more effective ways to tell people about the suffering of animals who are raised for food. Since the vast majority of people oppose cruelty to animals, you’d think it would be easy to persuade people to stop eating them. But what we choose to eat is a very personal matter, and most of us don’t like to be told what to put on our plates.
I have a theory that people must hear 50 repetitions of a vegetarian or vegan message before they decide to change their eating habits. Of course, that number is different for each person, but I do think that it takes a lot of exposure to the issue before people will alter something as important as their diet. The repetitions can take many different forms, such as interacting with an animal, watching a video, or talking to a vegan acquaintance.
I remember my first exposure to the issue. When I was a girl, my dad used to set crab traps and take me on fishing expeditions. I was horrified when I saw the fish waiting in a bucket to be killed with a sharp knife. I can also remember how the crabs struggled as my mom lowered them into boiling water. But I continued to eat animals. In college and in the workplace, I had vegetarian friends who talked eloquently about their reasons for not eating animals. But my 50th repetition didn’t come until I was 34 and saw a terrified goat get slaughtered by having his throat cut. I went vegetarian overnight—but that “overnight” decision was many years in the making.
When I talk with people about the suffering caused by meat, dairy, and egg production, I can often tell from their responses how many repetitions they’ve heard:
“But we have to eat meat, milk, and eggs to be healthy.” (Number three.)
“I’m going to order an extra steak to make up for you vegan idiots.” (Number 18.)
“I respect your right to be a vegan. Why don’t you respect my personal choices?” (Number 32.)
“I don’t eat much meat at home, and I only order free-range organic meat at restaurants.” (Number 45.)
It can be frustrating to be someone’s number 18 and get a hostile or defensive response. But every once in a while you get to be number 50. Recently, I was dining out with some friends and answered a few questions about the abuses endured by animals on factory farms. I didn’t think I’d had much of an impact, but I heard later that the woman who’d asked the questions had decided to go vegetarian.
When I get discouraged by people’s indifference to the plight of cows, chickens, and pigs, I remind myself that a number three is just as important as a number 50. Each repetition makes vegetarian and vegan diets seem a little less strange and a little more mainstream. The early repetitions might actually be the most important ones. If a hard-core meat-eater is hostile to me, I can fire back a nasty remark and reinforce the meat-eater’s belief that vegans are self-righteous jerks. Or I can respond with a polite smile and show that that I’m obviously concerned about helping animals, and maybe this person will be able to skip all the way to number 50 the next time he or she hears the message.
What was your experience in reaching number 50? If you’re not a vegetarian yet, what number would you guess you’re at?