Methods to Stop the Madness: Nick Cooney Speaks

Grasshopper, the vegan mainstay of Allston, is usually so calm that when one orders their veggies and fried gluten, it almost seems appropriate to whisper, because anything above a murmur just might kill the mood.  On Sunday, February 20th, Grasshopper’s usual serenity was replaced by the rumble of voices emitted by the packed masses, all of whom crammed themselves into the North Beacon Street establishment to hear Nick Cooney-Founder/Executive Director of The Human League and author of Change of Heart-speak on the topic of psychology and social change.

Cooney started his talk by explaining how our struggle for improving the conditions of animals can be more effective if we understand human psychology. Strategy is key when fighting for change, because as Cooney pointed out-being passionate towards a virtuous cause does not mean victory.  This was exemplified in his quote by Jean-Paul Sartre: “revolution’s not a question of virtue but of effectiveness.”

Cooney believes an effective way to change the minds of our society is through the human psyche: “psychology is a map to social change.”  In his presentation he outlined several methods that through his reasearch he found to be the most effective in producing a shift in attitudes.  Each of these can be applied to shifting critical opinions on improving the lives of animals.

  • Conformity: When people see that others around them are doing something, they in turn want to join in.  Most people do not want to be the exception or the outlier.
  • Commitment: By asking someone to commit, there is a greater likelihood that they will come through.  An example is the Red Cross and how they saw a greater turn out of blood donors when they ended their promotional phone calls by stating, “We’ll count on seeing you then ok?”
  • Foot in Door: Change is not made in leaps and bounds, but baby steps (insert cliche: “ROME WAS NOT BUILT IN A DAY!”).  If someone shifts their behavior, it starts to become part of their identity, and with time this identity will take root, thus leaving potential for greater change.
  • Narrow Options: Do not give people a slew of choices, keep them limited.  This can be implemented by providing people with only a few effective ways to help animals and prevent cruelty.  There is a greater likelihood for people to act on these options if there are not a lot of them.
  • Tell Stories: An extremely compelling argument, is not an argument or a statistic, but a narrative.  “Stories are what stick in people’s minds,” Cooney stated, and perhaps this is true.  After all, you cannot put a face on a number no matter how dramatic or devastating it is.  But when you describe the tragedy of one individual-an individual who represents the whole-then it cuts to the core of peoples’ emotions.
  • Don’t Deny It: When it comes to veganism and vegetarianism, there are swarms of untrue rumors, myths, and lies.  If you are having a conversation with someone about the veg lifestyle and they mention one of these myths, do not retell the untrue fact through denial, but stick with the truth itself.  The CDC (Center for Disease Control) had a pamphlet that stated the myths and facts about vaccines, and what they found was many people remembered the myths as facts.

The second part of the presentation focused less on changing the minds of the masses, and more towards those who already lead a pro-animal rights lifestyle.  He outlined a few ways in which people can be detrimental (or less effective) in the fight for a better tomorrow for animals.  He talked about how self-expression in extreme forms can turn people off.   Sometimes we get so excited or are so fervent in our beliefs, we take on an in-your-face attitude.  Cooney’s prime example was the “meat is murder t-shirt”.  Yes, some of us think its cool, but it can give off a sense of irrationality and repel people from becoming interested.

Cooney also touched upon other pitfalls, such as how people who share the same passion will undoubtedly form friendships and bonds.  Sometimes these bonds and the “buddy buddy” sentiment, have a tendency to make people forget why they became friends in the first place.  He also mentioned how in our daily lives when we do choose to do something to help animals even if it is only an hour every month, we should spend that hour being as effective as possible, and using the alloted time in the most beneficial way.

Cooney’s presentation was undoubtedly  insightful, and from his numerous references to his “research” it all seemed referenced and supported through facts, case studies, and examples.  Just like anything else though, Cooney’s speech should be looked at with a critical eye.  Some of the methods that Cooney mentioned seemed to be altering people’s habits and mindset without them being conscious of the fact, such as using people’s propensity for social conformity in order to shift their behavior without their knowledge.  This is done every day by advertisers and corporations, but many vegetarians and vegans live a lifestyle in direct contrast to the ethos of major corporations.  By shifting people’s attitudes and habits through reading into their psychology, are we creating vegetarians/vegans who have not made the ethical switch due to their own insights and morals?  In the end though is that even relevant?  After all, less animal suffering is the issue at large, and when it comes to animal cruelty the ends most likely justify the means.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Cooney, we as a community could definitely learn from his motivation for improvement and if we do find fault with his methods then disagreement is only the first step.  Think of ways that are effective in which you can make a difference in improving the conditions of all animals.  We should also be constantly critiquing and analyzing the words, thoughts, and actions of other vegetarians/vegans around us and create a social forum where constructive discussion can be held.

Nick Cooney also pointed out how crowded Grasshopper was.  It was great to see such a large amount of the Boston veg community come out on a Sunday in order to gain insight into something so positive.  It was another step in a direction of a larger and more unified vegetarian/vegan scene.  Keep it up!

Note: Apologies for lack of photos…the only thing my point-and-shoot could get from the back of the room as I furiously scribbled down notes was a blurry mess not worthy of this blog.

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