Going Veggie: Identifying and Overcoming the Social and Psychological Barriers to Veganism

Conceptualize the journey to ethical veganism in the stages of the transtheoretical model of change.

February 2022

We conceptualize the journey to ethical veganism in the stages of the transtheoretical model of change, from precontemplation through contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. At each stage, we explore the psychological barriers to progressing towards veganism, discuss how they manifest, and explore ways to overcome them. It is hoped that this paper can be used as a guide for animal advocates to identify the stage an individual is at, and understand and overcome the social and psychological barriers they may face to progressing. – Christopher J. Bryant, Annayah M.B. Prosser & Julie Barnett


We conceptualize the journey to ethical veganism in the stages of the transtheoretical model of change, from precontemplation through contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. At each stage, we explore the psychological barriers to progressing towards veganism, discuss how they manifest, and explore ways to overcome them. It is hoped that this paper can be used as a guide for animal advocates to identify the stage an individual is at, and understand and overcome the social and psychological barriers they may face to progressing. 

We argue that, while many people are ignorant of the cruel practices entailed in animal farming, many deliberately avoid thinking about the issue, are unable to appreciate the scale of the issue, and simply tend to favour the status quo. When engaging with the issue of farm animal suffering, meat-eaters are largely driven by cognitive dissonance, which manifests as motivated reasoning aimed at protecting one’s image of oneself and one’s society.

This is facilitated by confirmation bias and complicit media which cater to the preferred views of their meat-eating audience. Even once convinced of veganism, habit and willpower present further barriers to acting on those beliefs. This is all in the context of a speciesist and carnistic culture where meat consumption is normal, farming is noble, and vegans are ‘others’.

We locate and elucidate each of these biases within the stages of the transtheoretical model and discuss the implications of this model for animal advocates and for further research.


The first stage of the TTM is pre-contemplation: where meat consumers are not considering changing their behaviour. Evidence suggests that around 40% of those engaged in  problematic behaviours are at this stage (Prochaska & Velicer, 1997) and this seems to be somewhat consistent with recent data on meat consumption (Arnaudova, Brunner & Götze, 2021; Hielkema & Lund, 2021; Klockner & Ofstad, 2017; Wolstenholme, Carfora, Catellani, Poortinga & Whitmarsh, 2021)

Meat consumers at this stage may simply be unaware of the negative impacts of their behaviour, or they may be actively avoiding thinking about it. Indeed, there is evidence for both ignorance and avoidance in the case of animal farming and meat consumption.

  • Ignorance: Survey findings suggest that the public are mostly ignorant about the issue of animal farming (Cornish, Raubenheimer & McGreevy, 2016). In one report of UK workshops on animal welfare, most participants admitted to knowing very little about how chickens were farmed for meat (Hall & Sandilands, 2007). Similarly, the majority of respondents to a US survey could not name a single source to obtain information about animal welfare (McKendree, Croney & Widmar, 2014). Recent research has found that the public are largely uninformed and often inconsistent with respect to their views on this topic (Alonso, González-Montaña & Lomillos, 2020).

  • Avoidance: Research shows that meat-eaters tend to actively avoid thinking about the animal origins of meat. One survey found that 67% of consumers said they did not think about farm animal suffering when purchasing meat (Signicom, 1997). Moreover, Kunst and Hohle (2016) found that meat which resembles an animal evokes more empathy in meat-eaters than processed and packaged meat. Many meat-eaters might love sausages, but find seeing a whole skewered pig upsetting. The study also demonstrated that replacing ‘beef/pork’ with ‘cow/pig’ on menus lead to increased willingness to order a vegetarian option instead. Just the name of the animal was enough to put people off eating it.

  • Confirmation bias: Meat-eaters tend to avoid images of animal cruelty (Cooney, 2014b), and often assume evidence of animal abuse is agenda-driven and not trustworthy (Lentz et al., 2018). Meanwhile, the information consumers pay most attention to on labels of animal products are expiry date, species name, weight, and price – information about the production method (e.g. free-range) receives far less attention (Verbeke & Ward, 2006; Verbeke et al., 2008; Verbeke, 2009).


With successful consciousness raising, meat consumers can move to the next stage of the TTM: contemplation. Similarly to the pre-contemplation stage, evidence suggests that around 40% of those engaged in problematic behaviours are at this stage (Prochaska & Velicers, 1997). Again this may be similar for meat-eaters (Klockner & Ofstad, 2017).

During this stage, individuals will reflect on the behaviour, its impact on others and whether they want to continue it (Prochaska & Velicers, 1997). According to the TTM, individuals can often get stuck at the contemplation stage and procrastinate about changing their behaviour for months or years without making a decision (Prochaska & Velicers, 1997). This is the stage where social psychology is likely to be the most useful. In this section, we will elucidate the many cognitive and social processes individuals are engaged with as they contemplate veganism.

  • Cognitive dissonance: This unpleasant feeling likely explains why people tend to avoid thinking about farm animal suffering – indeed, evidence suggests that most people, when asked, will agree that the way we treat animals in the food system is regrettable. For example, Reese (2017) found that 70% of US consumers had ‘some discomfort with the way animals are used in the food industry’. This survey also found paradoxically high support for animal rights policies. Notably, 49% of U.S. consumers support a ban on factory farming. Incredibly, 47% support a ban on slaughterhouses, whilst fully one third support a complete ban on animal farming. This is in a population where the vegetarian population is under 10% (Gallup, 2018). Clearly, there is a disparity here between consumer beliefs and their behaviour.

  • Motivated Reasoning: The result is that many omnivores, most of whom scarcely think about animal ethics (Signicom, 1997), often appear confident in dismissing clear evidence of animal abuse as purely agenda-driven (Buddle, Bray & Ankeny, 2018). The literature on this topic has tended to focus on individuals’ motivations to see themselves as good people and view their own behaviour as ethical. Indeed, there is considerable evidence to support the view that self-serving biases play a central role in thinking on this topic. However, we argue here that reasoning around meat consumption is also motivated by a desire to see society as ethical and just.

  • Self serving bias: People are generally motivated to see themselves in positive ways, and to present themselves positively to others (Shepperd, Malone & Sweeny, 2008). It is difficult to overstate what is at stake in the omnivore’s dilemma. When thinking about this topic, the omnivore can (a) attempt to justify the suffering inflicted on farm animals, (b) give up animal products, or (c) simply live with the dissonance of knowing that they are supporting needless animal cruelty. It seems that, for most people, (b) and (c) are unacceptable. Accordingly, Loughnan, Bastian and Haslam (2014, p. 104) argue that omnivores experiencing ‘the meat paradox’ alter their beliefs about themselves (‘the eater’), about animals (‘the eaten’), and about meat consumption (‘the eating’).

  • System justification bias: In contrast to self-serving biases in which individuals are seen as motivated to believe positive things about themselves, system justification theory sees individuals as motivated to believe positive things about their society, principally that the society is just. In this case, reading about the suffering of farm animals, and considering that this is happening to millions of animals right now can be overwhelming. If one properly feels the weight of this, it quickly becomes galling that society is complicit in this. Most people generally want to believe that there is order and justice to the world, and that such outcomes, if they truly were so terrible, would simply not be allowed to happen. For many people, the very fact that meat-eating is so widespread serves as evidence that it is morally acceptable. As Leenaert (2017) puts it, ‘Most people eat meat because most people eat meat.’

  • Status quo bias: For anyone who is not born a vegetarian, eating meat represents the status quo from which veganism is a departure. In general, people have a preference for the status quo, even when alternative choices could be superior (Kahneman, Knetsch, & Thaler, 1991; Samuelson & Zeckhauser, 1988).

  • Scale insensitivity: A further factor which is relevant at the contemplation stage is scale insensitivity. It is bound to be difficult to properly appreciate the scale of the suffering caused by industrial animal agriculture. This is due to an interesting misalignment in the way people tend to think about morality and scale. Hsee and Rottensteich (2004) demonstrated that, when people rely on feelings, rather than calculation, they are largely insensitive to the scale of the stimulus, apart from reacting to its mere presence or absence.

  • Carnism and speciesism: At the contemplation stage, we must also consider some social and cultural factors. Individual decisions are unavoidably taken in a socio-cultural context. In the case of animal product consumption, there is an overwhelming culture of meat-eating in most Western countries, supported by a pervasive ideology known as carnism (Joy, 2011).

    The carnist worldview considers a small group of animals appropriate for human consumption or use. The idea of factory farming most species of animals seems bizarre and cruel, yet society finds it acceptable to factory farm cows, pigs, sheep, and some species of birds and fish. Carnism is pervasive and powerful at every level of society. The exploitation and killing of these animals is a deeply embedded part of human cultures, rituals, and traditions. Carnism is rooted in speciesism – discrimination on the basis of species (Singer, 1975). Of course, one does not need to believe this in order to believe that animals have sufficient moral value to avoid killing. Nonetheless, comparisons of animal and human suffering are often difficult to stomach. Mika (2006) found evidence that activist messages comparing animal agriculture to slavery and rape were likely to put people off engaging with the message.

    While it is possible that humans have a richer conscious experience than farm animals comprising ‘higher order thoughts’ (Carruthers, 1992; 2000), there is evidence that animals, like humans, can (and, in most farming systems, do) experience physical and emotional pain and distress. Nonetheless, in order to escape in-group bias, it is useful not to consider comparisons between animals and humans, but instead to consider comparisons between different species of animals.

  • Social norms: One of the major implications of a carnistic culture is that meat-eating is normal: those who choose not to eat meat are deviating from a social norm on which there appears to be overwhelming consensus. There are at least two ways in which the normality of meat consumption could be a barrier to adopting veganism. First, an individual might infer from the overwhelming normality of meat consumption that, since so many people engage in this practice, there must be a good justification for it (Piazza et al., 2015). Moreover, since it is so normal, there is little or no social cost to eating meat, so there is no external motivation to pay attention to the issue.

    Second, an individual might actually have accepted the arguments for veganism, but decide that going vegan will violate the social norm, and therefore carry a social cost. Deciding to avoid meat out of personal preference, taste, or concern for one’s own health is a very different proposition from a moral objection (Rothgerber, 2014a) – the latter carries the implication that other people ought not to eat meat, too.

  • Social representations: Our social representation of meat, on the other hand, is one of valorisation and fetishization. Meat is often seen as central to dishes (Melendrez-Ruiz, Chambaron, Buatois, Monnery-Patris& Arvisenet, 2019) and is associated with wealth and power (Aveli, 2013; Rothgerber, 2013; Ruby & Heine, 2011). Communal meat consumption plays a central role in many traditions, including Sunday roasts, Easter lamb and Christmas turkey, and may develop warm associations with family gatherings (Abarca & Colby, 2016).

    Although many consumers are ambivalent about meat production on reflection (Van der Weele & Driessen, 2019), common social representations of meat do not consider animal ethics, possibly because they are created socially and therefore aim partly to facilitate social cohesion.


As Salehi, Diaz and Redondo (2020) have depicted, some people may move past the contemplation stage of the TTM, and reject the ideas of veganism wholly. Many of those who do likely have experienced some or all of the barriers to change described in the previous section. For those who do decide to change, they move on to the preparation stage of the TTM.

At this stage, people have made a decision to change their behaviour in a positive direction, and are intending to change the behaviour within the next six months (Prochaska & Velicer, 1997). During this stage, people take steps towards the intended behavioural change, which might include trying out meat replacement products, preparing some vegetarian meals, or learning more about veganism (Mendes, 2013). It is estimated that around 20% of those engaged in a problematic behaviour are at the preparation stage.

  • Habit: Even with the best of intentions, it is easy to act otherwise out of habit, particularly with respect to a behaviour so long ingrained and so frequently performed as choosing food. Even someone who is utterly convinced of the arguments for veganism may not change their behaviour out of habit. As Wood and Rünger (2016) argue, habits represent the default responses in choice scenarios, and drive choices more frequently than deliberate goal pursuit. The authors elaborate that habitual behaviours often entail a short-term change in goal priorities – this is reflected in food choice data consistently showing taste and convenience to be stronger drivers of food choice than factors such as ethical concerns or health (Fotopoulos, Krystallis, Vassallo & Pagiaslis, 2009; Januszewska, Pieniak & Verbeke, 2011).

    Strategies and tools have been developed tools to help motivated individuals overcome these habitual choices. Camp and Lawrence (2019) demonstrate the efficacy of a computerised ‘Response Inhibition Training’ task for reducing the propensity to carry out bad habits, including meat consumption (Lawrence et al., 2015; Adams et al., 2017). In the training, subjects respond to pictures of plant foods, but do not respond to pictures of meat; compared to a control group, those who took the training significantly decreased their meat consumption (Camp & Lawrence, 2019). Other promising research has shown that selection of vegetarian options increases significantly when these dishes are presented as the default (Campbell-Arvai, Arvai & Kalof, 2014; Hansen, Schilling & Malthesen, 2019). This is an example of an intervention which food outlets could adopt, or regulators could require, to help consumers who already want to reduce their meat consumption to overcome the habitual selection of meat.

  • Self liberation:In the TTM, self-liberation refers to the belief that one can change the behaviour and the continued commitment to do so. According to Prochaska and Velicer (1997, p.40), self-liberation is ‘what the public calls willpower’. Individuals may vary in how much willpower they can summon to avoid meat. For example, individuals vary with respect to their attitudes towards harming farm animals (Caviola et al., 2019) – some people are higher in empathy than others (Hogan, 1969) and are presumably more disposed to care about animal suffering. These people may naturally have more willpower to avoid animal products.

    Additionally, individuals may vary in how much willpower they require to avoid meat. Individuals have different levels of meat attachment (Graças, Calheiros & Oliveira, 2015): in particular, those with a high hedonistic value derived from meat and high dependence on meat will require more willpower to continually avoid meat (Lentz, Connelly, Mirosa & Jowett, 2018). For people with low meat attachment scores, giving up meat is less of a sacrifice, and therefore requires far less willpower.


This is the penultimate stage of TTM where the individual has taken action to change the target behaviour within the last 6 months (Prochaska & Velicer, 1997). Researchers stress the importance of having a defined and stringent threshold of behaviour the person must cross before they are considered to have advanced from the preparation stage to the action stage. In most cases, this is complete abstinence from the problematic behaviour, e.g. giving up meat or animal products.

  • Social identity: As Fischler (1988, p. 275) writes, ‘Food is central to our sense of identity. The way any given human group eats helps it assert… the otherness of whoever eats differently.’ Identities are usually much more salient for groups which represent minorities or deviations from the norm. The construction of the category ‘vegetarian’ likely contributes to greater dietary adherence, both in vegetarians and in meat-eaters (Blake, Bell, Freedman, Colabianchi & Liese, 2013; Carfora, Caso & Conner, 2017). However, the need to identify as a vegan or vegetarian in itself may discourage some meat-reducers from action, particularly if identification becomes a pre-requisite for attempting the practice (Kurz, Prosser, Rabinovich & O’Neill, 2019).

    Krpan and Houtsma (2020) experimentally manipulated the labelling of meat-free options in a menu selection-based hypothetical choice task. They found that labelling meat-free options as ‘vegetarian’ led to significantly lower selection of these dishes compared to labelling them as ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘refreshing’. This could be an indication that the label ‘vegetarian’ is uniquely off-putting to people who do not identify as vegetarian. Such a label may be taken to imply ‘for vegetarians only’.

    It is likely that people who first give up meat do not yet consider themselves to be vegetarians. Assimilating this new behaviour of meat avoidance into a new identity as a vegetarian is likely to be one major way in which longer-term behaviour change can be achieved.


This is the final stage of TTM when an individual is maintaining the new positive behaviour, but may still experience temptations to perform the old behaviour. People in this stage changed their behaviour more than 6 months ago, but less than 5 years ago, and have not yet reached the termination stage where they no longer experience temptations (Prochaska & Velicer, 1997). Asher and Green (2016) report that 53% of lapsed vegetarians and vegans maintained their diet for less than a year, while 34% lasted less than three months. Therefore, it seems likely that, consistent with TTM, relapse becomes less likely the longer the behaviour is maintained. Supportive relationships can uphold the newly established veganism.

  • Supportive relationships: The TTM prescribes supportive relationships as a process of change which is relevant to the maintenance stage, and research in the domain of vegetarianism and veganism appears to support the idea that membership in vegetarian and vegan communities is important to maintaining the dietary shift. That said, the existence of a supportive network may be relevant at all stages, including encouraging the shift from pre-contemplation to contemplation.

    Asher and Green (2016) report that the overwhelming majority (84%) of former vegetarians and vegans were not involved with any vegetarian or vegan communities such as vegetarian potlucks or online groups, compared to 71% of current vegetarians and vegans. This study also highlighted that 63% of former vegetarians and vegans said they disliked that their diet made them stand out, compared to just 41% of current vegetarians and vegans. Both
    comparisons indicate that closer social alignment with vegetarian and vegan communities could help people to maintain these diets.

    In particular, supportive vegan friends can provide encouragement and accountability. Evidence shows that people with more vegetarian/vegan friends, and who perceive stronger norms around meat avoidance in their close social groups, are more likely to stop eating meat (Schenk, Rossel, & Scholz, 2018). Therefore, to help new vegetarians and vegans maintain their diets, membership in a vegetarian or vegan community is recommended. Online communities provide a low-effort option for regular engagement with vegan material, whereas local vegan groups might offer the opportunity to form more personal relationships with people who can support the change.