JoAnn Alumbaugh
JoAnn Alumbaugh

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where the majority of a group has taken a position with which you don’t agree? Instead of “speaking up,” did you remain silent, even though it made you feel uncomfortable? When individuals assemble in groups, profound changes often take place. It’s as if the group casts a spell over the individuals who compose it. By formulating a “group” mentality, it’s easier for individuals to support the group’s preset negative opinion, and that is what has happened to animal agriculture.

The textbook, “Psychology,” by Saul Kassin, gives this example: “In a control group, where subjects made their judgments alone, performance was virtually errorless. Yet subjects in the experimental group went along with the incorrect majority 37 percent of the time. This result may seem surprising, but recent studies too have shown that people conform to the responses of others on a variety of cognitive tasks (Larsen, 1990; Schneider & Watkins, 1996).”

“When people have the ability and motivation to think critically about the contents of a message, they take the central route to persuasion. In these instances, people are influenced by the strength and quality of the arguments.”

But here’s the clincher: “When people do not have the ability or motivation to pay close attention to the issues, however, they take mental shortcuts along the peripheral route to persuasion. In this case, people may be influenced by a speaker’s appearance, slogans, one-liners, emotions, audience reactions, and other superficial cues.

Animal rights groups have taken a page right from the textbooks and use it to convert an unsuspecting public to a specific thought process, because they know most people don’t pay close attention to – or have a clear understanding of – livestock production issues. They use reactionary words like “factory farm” and “cruel cages,” and disturbing images to evoke an emotional response from a largely unknowing audience.

Kassin writes, “Informational influence leads people to conform because they assume the majority is correct. In the case of normative influence, people conform because they fear the social rejection that accompanies deviance. For good reason. Research shows that people who stray from the norm are disliked and often are ridiculed and laughed at (Levine, 1989).”

The Humane Society for the United States has placed editorials, published news releases and pressured food companies with information that’s almost always taken out of context. And many of these companies have followed the path not because they necessarily agree, but because they don’t want the alternative of negative publicity that HSUS would surely provide.

While all of this is extremely frustrating, there are solutions:

  • We must put a name and face on animal agriculture, from an industry perspective as well as from an individual perspective; let people know what you’re doing on your farm to care for your animals and how you and your operation contribute to the community
  • We must continually look at how we operate, and make sure we’re implementing best practices, with a recognition that those practices change over time
  • We must remove the opportunity for criticism by explaining why we do the things we do, with animal welfare at the forefront

While facts, figures and research are important, the relevance and believability comes when the public knows you care about your animals, that you have their best interests in mind and that you’re a consumer just like they are.

Theodore Roosevelt was spot-on when he said, “No one will care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Tell us what you think – do you agree? What are you doing on your farm that others can emulate?