Book Review: Nick Cooney’s Change of Heart

January 11, 2011

It’s easy to do animal advocacy that will save large numbers of animals from harm; easier still if you get a little reading under your belt.

Nick Cooney’s new book, Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change, is the most impressive book on animal advocacy tactics I’ve yet encountered. But it’s not the first book on the subject I’d read. Consider Cooney’s book a graduate level course, one that has a few prerequisites.

I’d start out by reading either Ball and Friedrich’s The Animal Activist’s Handbook, or Hawthorne’s Striking at the Roots. These are great introductory texts that will acquaint you with a variety of effective activist opportunities, and basic strategies for being as effective as possible.

Peter Singer’s Ethics Into Action is also a terrific read for beginning advocates. By analyzing the campaigns of animal advocate Henry Spira, this book offers up some great lessons about how change is won. And finally, my own Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, & Money provides a perspective to understanding animal agribusiness’s key weaknesses that is especially useful to novice activists.

With these books read, you’re ready to tackle Change of Heart, which contains practically no overlap with any of these other titles.  What Cooney has done is to read deeply into the surprisingly large body of research on psychology and persuasiveness, in an effort to uncover approaches to advocacy that will deliver maximum impact. Cooney has not only dug deeply into the research—as the founder of Philadelphia’s Humane League, he’s spent his time in the trenches winning a variety of campaigns. I think this gives him added authority to speak about activism, when compared to writers who are exclusively immersed in academia.

Throughout his book, Cooney gives clear answers to areas of substantial controversy among activists. Among these topics:

  • Is it productive to bring up veganism early in a conversation with a meat eater?
  • What sorts of appeals are most likely to motivate omnivores to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products?
  • How much of our outreach should convey statistical information, and how much should tell individual stories?
  • How can you present yourself as someone your listener will like and will trust?
  • When launching a campaign, what negotiation tactics have proven most effective in getting your target to make the changes you seek?
  • How do campaign approaches that demand your listener undergo a fundamental change in world view compare with approaches that seek a more gradual approach?
  • Do campaigns that focus on eliminating specific cruelties to certain farmed animals sabotage efforts that are purely geared toward spreading veganism, or do they in fact help further the adoption of veganism?

You can certainly win important changes for animals without knowing the answers to questions like these. But imagine how much powerful your efforts will be if you have clear answers to these sorts of questions—answers based not on personal opinion but instead on substantial research.

I can’t say enough about Change of Heart. Cooney’s done a masterful job of examining the scientific literature of persuasion and social change. His book flows nicely from one topic to the next, building chapter by chapter to increasingly advanced models of activism. And at the rare times when he reaches a point where there’s no clear research pointing in either direction, he makes clear that his book has ventured into uncharted territory.

How useful is Change of Heart? I would guess that for many animal advocates, it has a real shot at doubling our effectiveness. I expect that, moving forward, Change of Heart’s lessons will inform every substantial advocacy effort I undertake.

If I’m even close to right that Change of Heart could double the effectiveness of a serious activist, imagine the payoff it will have for animals. I often talk about “animal millionaires”—activists who have kept a million animals from slaughter. And while I’ve met dozens of people who surely qualify as animal millionaires, that’s perhaps too daunting a number for a typical part-time advocate to aspire to.

But saving 100,000 animals is surely quite attainable for part-time advocates. To reach this milestone, all you would need to do is convince fifty young people to become vegetarian or vegan (the average person will eat about 2000 land animals, mostly chickens, between the ages of twenty and seventy.) Now imagine saving an extra 100,000 animals simply by making use of the lessons taught by Change of Heart.

Change of Heart will give you the tools to tweak your overall efforts for maximum effectiveness. This book may well represent the best investment in time that an already dedicated animal advocate could make.

Consider Change of Heart to be required reading for anyone seriously devoted to animal protection.

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