Dr Rob Udale, who leads Animal Think Tank’s Narrative research project, recently conducted research which found that orienting an audience to a social justice issue (LGBT+ rights) led to stronger expressions of support for animal freedom. This seemed to us to be a great example of bleedover between values underpinning concern for social justice and values underpinning expressions of concern for a different cause – here animal freedom. We asked Rob if he would write about his research.
My journey towards becoming a full-time animal advocate was long and winding. Starting as a dedicated meat-eater, I began to feel increasingly uneasy about the treatment of the animals who ended up on my plate. This discomfort prompted me to first adopt a ‘reducetarian’ lifestyle, which gradually shifted to vegetarianism and veganism, culminating in my present role as a full-time animal freedom activist. Reflecting on this transformation, I noticed a parallel evolution: as I transitioned through different dietary habits, I also grew more aware of and concerned about ecological issues. My desire to decrease my carbon footprint and limit plastic waste led me to engage in zero-waste shopping practices, like using refillable glass jars, and collecting rainwater for my vegetable garden instead of relying on tap water. The materialist in me was gradually replaced by a conscientious environmentalist, eager to minimise my negative impact on the planet in every possible aspect. What prompted this change? The answer perhaps lies in the realm of social psychology, in a concept known as the values ‘bleedover effect’.
The ‘bleedover effect’ is a fascinating psychological phenomenon that describes how values activated in one context can bleed over to other related values, strengthening those neighbouring values, and deepening commitment to attitudes and behaviours associated with them. So, as my concerns about the treatment of the animals that I used to eat (an expression of Universalism values, using the Schwartz values model) became more salient, the importance that I placed on other distinct, but neighbouring values – such as ‘environmental protection’ (another value in the Universalism group) – also strengthened. In turn, as I came to place greater importance on the value of ‘environmental protection’, my commitment to embracing pro-environmental behaviours also strengthened – even where the links between these behaviours and the ways that animals are treated were unclear.
Of course many people adopt vegan diets for reasons other than concern about the treatment of animals (and indeed, many campaigns for plant-based diets choose to focus on different imperatives). Had my growing reservations about eating meat and dairy arisen from personal health concerns (in the Security group), rather than concerns about the treatment of animals, my changes in diet might not have served to connect with, and strengthen, my Universalism values. They may not, therefore, have led to deepening my wider concern for environmental protection.
In my role at Animal Think Tank, I became fascinated in exploring other potential consequences of the bleedover effect. Might it be that such bleedover effects could be found between two seemingly more distant causes: animal freedom and LGBT+ rights? In a study involving over 4,000 UK participants, we at Animal Think Tank tested the effect of framing different messages about animal rights and freedom on attitudes towards other animals and support for potential laws that would afford animals greater freedom. But one of the messages that we tested did not talk about other animals at all. Instead, it promoted LGBT+ rights. Interestingly, people who read this particular message (which made no mention of animal freedom) showed a significant increase their support of animal rights compared to those who read a neutral control message. In fact, this message was just as effective as other messages that were designed to raise awareness for the need of animal rights directly. It seems that the text about LBGT+ rights may have activated Universalism values (here social justice) which in turn bled over to neighbouring Universalism values (here concern for the wellbeing of non-human animals).
The bleedover effect, a potent psychological tool, has the power to create meaningful connections across a broad spectrum of social justice movements, transforming them into unified forces for change. This interconnection emerged from our study, demonstrating the potential of harnessing this effect to create stronger, more inclusive collaborations. By focusing on a shared underlying theme – freedom from oppression and rights for all – social justice campaigns can bridge divides and find common ground. Imagine it as a large social justice symphony, each individual cause a unique instrument, but all playing in harmony to resonate a powerful shared message. By aligning all of our values and objectives, together we can create a chorus that amplifies our individual voices, extending our impact and reach, and
making the collective melody of social change impossible to ignore.
Of course, campaigning organisations often collaborate where they discover a shared interest in promoting a particular policy or behaviour. But an understanding of the bleedover effect points to the importance of giving careful thought to the reasons for expressing support for a change in policy of practice.
I would predict (though we didn’t test this) that a text urging people to adopt a plant-based diet in pursuit of personal health benefits (a Security value) would not have had the same effect in strengthening support for LGBT+ rights. Such a text would not have connected with Universalism values and would not have presented the same opportunity for bleedover to social justice concerns. On the other hand, a text urging people to support policies to reduce meat eating in pursuit of public health benefits – focusing on the possibilities to improve the health and wellbeing of the wider community (a Universalism value) may well have led to these bleedover effects, and strengthened support for LGBT+ rights.
By thinking carefully about the values to which we appeal in our campaigns, and by building on shared Universalism and Benevolence values that resonate across social issues, movements can widen their appeal, drawing in new supporters who, while not initially engaged with the cause, are attracted by these mutual values. Crucially, working with an understanding of values can result in long-lasting change, as it
anchors shifts in deep-seated values rather than surface-level attitudes.
This is not to suggest that bleedover effects can magic away areas of tension or conflict between different groups. Similar values, overlaid by different ideas on strategy, can lead to tensions and conflict. Take, for example, the relationship between abolitionist animal rights groups and certain animal welfare organisations. The former fundamentally believe in the total end of all forms of animal exploitation. In contrast, some animal welfare organisations, such as those funded by industries that use animals, like RSPCA Assured or the Red Tractor logo schemes, focus on improving living conditions within the system. While these welfare groups aim to reduce animal suffering, they do not necessarily challenge the premise of animals as commodities or property.
Abolitionists may perceive welfare organisations as validating the very system they are trying to dismantle, while welfare groups might view abolitionists as uncompromising and unrealistic in their goals. This dissonance could lead to confusion among supporters, dilution of the message, and potentially result in backlash from both sides.
However, it’s worth considering this relationship through the lens of the inside/outside game. In this view, these groups are not opponents but rather two sides of the same coin, applying pressure both within the system (welfare organisations) and from outside (abolitionist groups). Despite different end goals, these groups share many milestones – adopted in line with shared values – such as improving conditions for animals, increasing public awareness about animal exploitation, and promoting legislation for animal protection. By recognising these shared values and focusing on collaboration rather than opposition, these groups can create a more powerful, multifaceted campaign for animal rights. Even though they may not agree on all aspects, focusing on the shared value of making animals’ lives better can be a uniting factor. Bringing an understanding of values to our campaigns can serve to identify ways of building and strengthening solidarity between causes – even causes which may seem very far removed from one another in terms of policy and practice (like, for example, animal freedom and LGBT+ rights). This understanding can also help to establish common ground between organisations which work on the same causes, but which pursue very different strategies for change.