5 Behavior and Culture Hacks to Get People Eating Less Meat

Science has shown eating less meat can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. Here are five ways to commit to eating less meat.

I'm the Director of User Experience at Opower, where we work to fight climate change bytackling people’s energy use. Our products use behavioral science combined with good design to motivate people to use less, and it's quite effective; so far we’ve saved 2 billion kWh of electricity. However, lately science has been telling us that that eating less meat is actually the best way to have the fastest impact on our planet. This got me thinking: could similar behavioral science techniques be used to motivate people to eat less meat? Below are 5 techniques and ideas on how to apply them.

1. Defaults

Science says: You’re much more likely to stick with the first choice that is presented to you. This principle has significantly moved the needle on 401K savings and organ donation rates, and Bloomberg is trying to use it to combat obesity by changing the default soda size in NYC.

How to apply to eating less meat: We could offer non-meat options as the default on planes,wedding invitations, restaurant menus. Instead of needing to select “Vegetarian”, why not force someone to choose “Meat” as the exception? Instead of listing vegetarian items on the menu with green leaf icons, why not list the meat options with animal icons alongside?

Try this: next time you’re in a restaurant with a new friend browsing the menu, instead of asking if he’s vegetarian, ask if he eats meat. It’s a subtle shift, but subtle shifts can often be quite powerful when adopted in aggregate.

2. Normative Comparison or 'Keeping up with the Joneses'

Science says: If you’re compared to other people like you, you’ll be motivated to adjust your behavior to adhere to the norm. This behavioral lever is one of our most powerful at Opower: we tell people how their energy use compares to similar-sized homes nearby.

How to apply: This is difficult, because there’s no automatic system to record food intake like there is for energy use, so it’s hard to track how we’re doing. What we could do: provide normative comparisons in smaller, more measurable contexts, such as grocery stores or restaurants. Your Safeway receipt could show your meat/non-meat breakdown compared to other shoppers, or your restaurant bill could show how the breakdown of your table compares to the average.

3. Commitments

Science says: If you make a commitment to do something, ideally in writing, you’re more likely to follow through. You’re also more likely to feel good about doing it, because it became congruent with your self-image. The simple act of selecting a radio button that says you’ll try to use less energy makes it more likely that you will.

How to apply: There are already great campaigns to get people to eat less meat, such as Meatless Mondays and Weekday Vegetarian. Let’s make it a lot easier for people to commit to them. Set up booths in grocery stores and give people something free in exchange for checking a box. Put large, inviting 'Take the pledge' buttons on websites. Run ads in airplane magazines that include three different veggie recipes and ask people to select which one they plan to cook.

4. Cue and reward

Science says: A habit loop can be broken down into a cue, a routine, and a reward, and you can change a habit by changing the elements in the loop. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes his own eating habit loop he wanted to break: the cue was snack-craving, the routine was eating snacks with friends, and the reward was socializing. In order to break his habit, he started to socialize away from snacks and his cravings went away.

How to apply: We can replace the meat reward with tastier meatless food options. If the cue is attending a BBQ, the routine is grilling a burger, and the reward is deliciousness, we’d need to substitute that burger for something equally as tasty in order to change the habit. Veggie burgers have come a long, long way from that frozen garden burger you had one bite of once and almost spit out because it tasted like cardboard. Some of them are sometimes even preferred by meat lovers, especially if homemade.

5. Liking & Familiarity

Science says: You’re more easily persuaded by someone you like. That someone could be a friend, a celebrity, or even just someone you’ve been exposed to repeatedly. Liking is often used in the advertising industry by having celebrities ask us to buy things we don’t need. Although it’s not all bad: Texas couldn’t curb their rampant littering problem until 'The Don’t Mess With Texas' campaign showed well-loved celebrity Texans talking about their disdain for littering.

How we can apply: Get some well-loved, stereotypical meat-eaters like football players to talk about eating less meat. Get sexy actors to talk about how too much meat is a turn-off. And just start exposing people to vegetarian food through media. Start embedding non-meat eating into our TV show and movies, not as major plotlines, but just as part of the status quo.

These are just quick ideas based on a small sample of principles, but could be a rich challenge area for designers, behavioral scientists, and policy makers in the food industry going forward.

The public may take issue with some of these ideas, because we haven’t yet reached a universal understanding that eating less meat is good. It’s a lot easier to judge people’s energy use since we’re starting with a mostly collective consensus that using less energy is a positive thing. No matter your ideological belief, there are reasons to use less—whether to lessen pollution, end dependence on foreign oil, or save money.

We haven’t yet reached that tipping point with meat eating—it’s still controversial to say we should do less of it, and there are powerful lobbies thatwork hard to keep it that way. But we can reframe the issue to promote benefits everyone can get behind, like health. It’s a fact: You will live a longer, more disease-free life, by eating less meat.

If we focus on getting that message into the collective consciousness, we’ll have a better chance of successfully reaching people through some of the above techniques.

In the meantime, here is a delicious winter veggie burger recipe.

This month, we're challenging the GOOD community to host a dinner party and cook a meal that contains fewer ingredients than the number of people on the guest list. Throughout March, we'll share ideas and resources for being more conscious about our food and food systems. Join the conversation at and on Twitter at #chewonit.\n

Vegetables photo via Shutterstock

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