Making your meat-free diet more palatable

Sophie Clark's essay earned a Distinction on the IPA's Applied Behavioural Economics course.

We are spotlighting some of the best essays from our MIPA qualifying courses and qualifications. Here, Differentology's Sophie Clark looks at how behavioural science could be used to reduce meat consumption in the UK as part of the IPA's Applied Behavioural Economics course.

The focus of this essay will be to discuss how the EAST framework can be applied to reduce meat consumption in the UK. The EAST framework, proposed by the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, is focused on the idea that behaviours are most likely to be successfully changed if they are Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely.

The three most common motivations, besides religious beliefs, for reducing meat consumption are animal welfare, concerns for health and concern for the environment.

Behavioural Insights Team, 2019

As the population grows, the UN estimates that we are looking to have a 74% increase in the demand for meat and 58% increase for dairy, which together contribute to 80% increase in agricultural emissions (How to Feed the World in 2050, 2009). As well as environmental concerns, research (Zheng et al., 2019) has found that increased red meat consumption across eight years was associated with higher mortality rates in both men and women. This study found that an increase of at least half a serving per day was associated with a 10% higher mortality rate. Evidence such as these two pieces give a convincing argument as to why the UK population should be encouraged to reduce their meat consumption.

The UK population is becoming increasingly aware of the issues surrounding meat consumption. Research from Mintel (Mintel, 2017) found that over a quarter of omnivore Brits have reduced or limited the amount of meat that they consume within the past six months. Movements such as Veganuary and Meat Free Mondays are evidence of behavioural economics already trying to encourage reducing meat intake. These concepts are both based upon framing the campaign around a fresh start; January and Mondays. This essay will aim to build upon similar ideas to these and discuss how the government could intervene across the UK in both restaurants and supermarkets, to reduce meat consumption of the UK population.

Focus on restaurants

The intervention will firstly focus on making changes to restaurants. There is empirical evidence to suggest that the manipulation of menus, with behavioural economics principles in mind, can nudge consumers to alter their selection.
Following behavioural science theories, there are three alterations to the menu that the government would recommend to UK restaurants in order to reduce meat consumption.

Firstly, the menu should be changed so that the meat free options are cheaper and are put in order from cheapest non-meat option at the top to the most expensive meat option at the bottom. This alteration is outlined because of the reference dependence theory which suggests that when ordering items on a menu in ascending price order, consumers tended to choose a lower-priced option (Suk, Lee and Lichtenstein, 2012). According to this theory, this layout would encourage customers to choose the cheaper, meat free options as they anchor their choice on the cheaper choices at the top of the menu.

Secondly, the restaurants should make their meat free options distinctive on the menu. They can do this by putting meat free options in increased font sizes, different colours, highlighted, put in a box or even have a meat free ‘Chef’s Recommendation.’ The rationale behind doing this is focused on a part of the ‘make it attractive’ aspect of the EAST framework; the von Restorff effect. The effect was identified by Hedwig von Restorff in 1933 and demonstrates that a distinctive item within a set of similar items was most likely to be remembered; we are hardwired to notice differences, rather than similarities. Chen et al. (2020) investigated attention to items on a menu, which were differentiated by both visual and textual elements. They found that those that were distinct in these two categories were more likely to influence the consumers’ responses to the dishes in question, giving support to the outlined menu alteration with regards to distinction.

The final consideration that restaurants should take is to create a single menu with all options on, rather than a separate meat free menu as often done in restaurants currently. There are two ways in which behavioural economics would suggest that a single menu with all items encourages meat free eating. Firstly, it focuses the ‘make it easy’ part of the EAST framework. The customer does not have to go through the effort of asking for a vegetarian menu, so therefore it is easier for them to choose a vegetarian option as it is right in front of them. The theory behind this is that behaviour is most likely to be engaged with if it is as easy as possible. Empirical evidence for making it easy comes from Bergman and Roger (2017) who looked at the effects of default enrolments on uptake on education technology. The research found that automatic enrolment significantly increased the likelihood of people enrolling. This gives clear evidence that the easier a behaviour is made, the more willing an individual will be to partake in it, which supports the potential advantage of having a single menu for meat and non-meat options.

Making meat free meals the perceived ‘norm’ would be a more powerful form of persuasion than stating the environmental impact of eating meat.

Additionally, the single menu would tap into the ‘social’ aspect of the EAST framework. Social proof (Sherif, 1935) is a bias that results in humans feeling more inclined to engage in behaviours if they believe that others are doing the same. In more recent years, Cialdini (2005) conducted a study looking at which message was the most persuasive for guests to reuse their towel. He found that the most convincing message, even more than stating environmental reasons, was to create the belief that reusing the towel is the norm. This is particularly interesting when encouraging meat reduction because, as previously stated, there is evidence that high meat consumption harms the environment. However, as according to the theory of social proof, making meat free meals the perceived ‘norm’ would be a more powerful form of persuasion than stating the environmental impact of eating meat.

Focus on supermarkets

The government intervention will also discuss how supermarkets can take advantage of behavioural economics techniques to discourage eating meat. The first suggestion focuses on the ‘attractive’ aspect of the EAST framework in light of work by BF Skinner. Skinner was the first researcher to realise that that humans are attracted to variable rewards (Psychology Today, 2013). Following this principle to encourage choosing meat free options in supermarkets, when customers get to the till with a meat free shop, every 10th person will win 10% off their entire shop. This is encouraging as it tempts the consumer with the opportunity for reward, rather than one that is guaranteed.

The changes in the supermarkets will also focus on the social aspect of the framework. Just like in the restaurants, the supermarket will aim to create a perception in the shop that not buying meat is the norm. This will be done by placing marketing messages around the shop and placed strategically around the meat, so that consumers will have the message in their minds whilst making the decision to buy meat or not. The content on the message will build on the study previously mentioned by Cialdini. An example of a marketing message on one of these signs is, “We are proud to say that more people than ever before are purchasing meat free shops in this store.” This message taps into ‘making it social’ on a local level by referencing “this store”, which evidence from Cialdini suggests would be an effective message.

Delivery of Changes

There are two key parts to the delivery which will help to take the changes to optimum effectiveness levels; who and when. Both these things will focus on the ‘timely’ aspect of the EAST framework.

Firstly, the changes will be focused on the younger generations. This is because younger people have had less time to form strong habits in comparison to older people who will have been engaging in their typical behavioural for much longer (Shotton, 2019). As humans we like to be consistent with our past self so the longer that someone has been consistently behaving in a certain way, such as eating meat, the more challenging it will be to break the habit.

It is also essential that the population be targeted at the right time. It is proposed that these changes in the supermarkets and restaurants should come into action in January 2020. Not only is this a new year but it is also a new decade. Many will perceive this as a ‘fresh start’ and so therefore is the best time to try and influence behaviour change. When experiencing a fresh start such as a new year and decade, people feel more removed from their past self than usual so are more open to change their previous behaviour. This makes January 2020 the ideal time to encourage formation of new habits.

Sophie Clark is a Strategic Insights Executive at Differentology. This essay earned her a Distinction for the IPA's Applied Behavioural Economics course, which is next running in London in May and champions a different social cause in each city.

For more on sustainability check out the IPA's 'Advertising and the climate crisis' session at AdWeek Europe
Last updated 02 June 2020