Change of Heart by Nick Cooney

Nick Cooney’s book, Change of Heart, was a recommendation from Bruce Friedrich of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, made during a recent Animal Rights Zone chat. While I find Bruce likable, I often disagree with many of his tactics, as well as those of his parent organization.  I was therefore quite surprised to find the time I spent reading Cooney’s book to be time very well spent.

Looking at Activism From A Psychological Perspective

Tagline for the book is this: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change. It seems an important topic and one that most activists want to better understand. How do people change? What is the most effective way to do outreach for veganism? How do we get resistant people to look at the truth about the destructiveness of animal commodification? How do we help translate awareness into behavioral change? Cooney’s book begins by helping us to look at ourselves first and how our own identity is often tied up with how we perform activism. He highlights how self interest is part of most choices and warns that systemic change most always does more good than caring for individuals in need.

The next section of Change of Heart looks at some of the aspects of human nature that make advocacy difficult, things like empathy avoidance (why those painful videos may not be effective), victim denigration (why people often disparage animals), status quo bias (why it is difficult for people to make changes in light of the norm) and numbers overwhelm (why statistics may make people’s eyes roll back in their heads). After getting this far into the book, it would be easy to become discouraged. Armed with all the destructive aspects of animal commodification, an activist might be ready to throw up their hands in defeat, feeling like human nature just will not allow new information in. In fact, this is covered, too — often people will cling tighter to beliefs that have been proven false. Rationality, it seems, does not always work–which explains a lot about current politics. What’s an activist to do?

Nick Cooney’s Change of Heart Aims to Create Effective Activists

Cooney wrote this book to explain it to you. Tools of Influence, in four parts, lists ways to use psychology to the activist’s benefit. For example, according to research, it appears people are more likely to accept what you say when you present yourself as an expert on a topic, rather than as an advocate for a certain position. It helps if you are tall (I am totally out of luck on this one!). It helps if you are good looking and it helps if you are dressed in similar fashion to those you will be meeting. It helps to be friendly and non-threatening. It helps to understand where your audience is in regard to animal commodification so you can set realistic goals. It also helps if the person accepts something from you, thereby triggering the Rule of Reciprocity — so keep those vegan cookies coming! Cooney also advocates embracing those in our circle who hold different viewpoints, thereby increasing our sphere of influence rather than discounting those in outlying groups.

Finally, Cooney looks at Social Marketing, Transition Matrix, and Game Theory. In the foreward, he reminds us that the research has been done and it is up to us to draw our own conclusions. An example Cooney uses for the Transition Matrix suggests that promoting vegetarianism is more effective than promoting veganism directly; then, once the person is vegetarian, you can go back and promote veganism to those who have already demonstrated a willingness to change This suggestion seems problematic, since Cooney offers no research to support this premise, since many people have gone vegan without becoming vegetarian, and many who have been vegetarian first did so only because they lacked the clear message of why veganism is important. It also seems dishonest and potentially confusing.  However, despite any individual bias that Cooney might display, his book offers an important look into ideas that could benefit most activists. Reading the book carefully and with cautious scrutiny, most any activist would benefit from its focus on understanding the psychology of change and how that impacts our activism.