*This post is by Contributor Liz Hirky, PhD
A Recipe for Change
Veganism is about non-exploitation. An important part of veganism is about food — something we have to negotiate with every day – and is the focus of this week’s blog. Of course, the process of change, however, can be applied to veganism and non-exploitation more generally.
We hear a lot of stories about people who change their eating habits from non-vegan to vegan overnight. These stories often involve a meaningful event such as watching a documentary about animals and food and deciding on the spot to no longer contribute to animal exploitation through food choices. Snap. Done. Next.
For most of us, change of any kind is seldom that easy. Change frequently comes in stages. This is especially true when we try to change long-established habits that reflect the predominant culture. If you’re thinking about making or making more food choices that reduce animal exploitation, the good news is that there’s lots of information and support now for doing this. Information is power but information is not enough to change behavior. We know this from decades of excellent clinical research on health behavior change (or not!), such as quitting smoking.
So, what do we need besides information? One thing we need is to understand how “change” actually works. That’s where the Transtheoretical Model of Change comes in. The TMC model (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1984) shows that regardless of why or what kind of change you are trying to make, we humans are fairly predictable when it comes to how we make changes. The TMC describes 3 elements of change and 6 stages of change.
Three Elements of Change
*Readiness: Do I have the knowledge and resources to make a change?
*Barriers: What could or will prevent me from making the change?
*Expect Relapse: What’s likely to get me off track from this new behavior?
Six Stages of Change
- Precontemplation: “What problem? You mean there’s a problem?” In precontemplation, a person isn’t thinking there’s anything they need or want to change.
Questions to ask yourself: To see if you are in the Precontemplation stage, ask yourself: Do I think this behavior is a problem? What would have to happen for me to think this behavior is a problem?
I grew up in a typical American household where meat was an unquestioned part of the diet. I vividly remember not making a connection between a living, breathing cow and the hamburger meat in the grocery store or on the dinner plate. Definitely precontemplation!
- Contemplation: “Hmm. This might be a problem.” In the contemplation stage, we start to think that a behavior may be a problem. Now, we probably feel some conflicted emotions and ambivalence about making the change.
Questions to ask yourself: If you are contemplating a change, ask yourself: What are the pros and cons of making the change and how do I weigh the pros against the cons? What are the barriers to making this change?
We always lived with dogs and would never think of eating them. Our house backed up to acres and acres of state-owned woods. Our entire family would be upset during when deer hunting season was in progress. I started to think, “Why is it okay not to consider eating the dogs, okay to be concerned for the deer’s safety, and yet not okay to be upset for the cows?” Definitely a problem.
- Preparation: Let’s gather information and make some small changes in the new direction.
Questions to ask yourself: What motivates me? What are my goals? What’s my plan of action?
Here’s where my story runs two separate tracks: In 1981, I had the information and motivation to stop exploiting sheep, cows, and pigs by eating them. In 2008, I had more information and additional motivation to stop eating anything that involved animals or animal products. Each time, my goal was to do less harm to animals and my plan of action involved knowing what I could eat to be healthy without exploiting another sentient being. Each time the plan of action was to change to my eating habits.
- Action: In this stage, we take direct action that moves us toward our goal.
Useful Strategies: This is the time to look for social support for making this change. Be sure to reward your success!
In 1981, I announced at the dinner table that I would no longer eat meat from cows or sheep or pigs, explaining that I could no longer eat these somethings that used to be someones. My parents were fully supportive. In 2008, I became motivated to lean further into my personal non-exploitation of animals in large part because of the inspiration and support of Anne Trinkle, Founder and Executive Director of Animal Alliance of New Jersey. I had recently joined the AA board and Annie, along with fellow board member Donna Garcia, were committed to non-exploitation of animals via food and other choices. This was just the support and impetus I needed to make this next set of changes.
- Maintenance: Now that we’ve taken action, we want to turn this new action into a new habit by maintaining the new behavior.
Useful Strategies: Anyone who has tried to change a behavior knows it’s critical to develop coping strategies to deal with any temptation to slide back to the old behavior. Coping strategies and healthy rewards for success are key to maintaining new behavior. If we do have a minor lapse, it’s best to be kind to ourselves and get back on track.
In 2008 it was so much easier to make non-exploitative food choices than in 1981. And, since 2008, many, many more healthy alternatives (besides tofu!) are available. This has helped me maintain my diet change and expand what I can and want to eat. Some friends have been inspired by my changes and made changes themselves. Others have attacked my choices when we were dining out. When people want to start a fight with me about this, I don’t: the best fight is the fight you don’t get in! It’s been crucial for me to grow my resolve, stay centered, and actively seek support from people who understand and support these values.
- Relapse: When making a behavior change, relapse is frequent. People often feel disappointed, angry, and like they’ve failed. But, it’s important to remember what went well. If and when relapse happens, learn from it and start again with preparation, action, or maintenance stages.
Questions to ask yourself: What triggered this relapse? What can I do to overcome those obstacles in the future? What can I learn from this relapse that will make me more successful in the future? Check in with yourself again about the reasons for your motivation to change.
I was able to stick with the changes I made in 1981 mostly because by making the connection between the animal and the dinner plate, I lost my taste for the specific meats/animals who I decided to stop exploiting via food choices. These were important “harm reduction” changes. In 2008, I had 27 years of new habits which gave me the confidence to make the next, broader set of changes. In 2019, there is greater cultural awareness and support for making all kinds of choices that don’t exploit animals, which can help anyone maintain their resolve or recover from any lapses or relapses in behavior change.
- Change is a process
- Change is gradual
- Expect relapse, learn from relapse
- Stay committed — new behaviors need time to become new habits!
Making a major change can be challenging. Understanding how change occurs (in predictable stages) helps us have realistic expectations. When our expectations are realistic, we can find strategies that will help us succeed. It may not be in a straight line, but new habits are possible one step and one stage at a time!
Resources for more in-depth discussion of readiness for change and stages of change:
Bamberg, S. (2013). Changing environmentally harmful behaviors: A stage model of self-regulated behavioral change. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 34, 151-159.
Klöckner, C.A. (2017). A stage model as an analysis framework for studying voluntary change in food choices: The case of beef consumption reduction in Norway. Appetite, 108, 434-449.
Prochaska, J.O. & Prochaska, J.M. (2016). Changing to thrive: using the stages of change to overcome the top threats to your health and happiness. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Prochaska, J.O., Norcross, J.C., & DiClemente, C.C. (1994). Changing for good: the revolutionary program that explains the six stages of change and teaches you how to free yourself from bad habits (1st ed.). New York: William Morrow and Company.
Prochaska, J.O., Velicer, W.F., Rossi, J.S., Goldstein, M.G., Marcus, B.H. et al. (1994). Stages of change and decisional balance for 12 problem behaviors. Health Psychology, Jan;13(1):39–46.
Prochaska, J.O. & DiClemente, C.C. (1984). The transtheoretical approach: crossing traditional boundaries of therapy. Homewood, IL: Dow Jones-Irwin.
*This post is by Contributor Liz Hirky, PhD
Liz Hirky, PhD is a clinical psychologist based in New York City who has been in private practice for 20 years. Currently, she is the Director of Clinical Training for the clinical psychology PhD program at Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, Yeshiva University. A life-long animal advocate, Liz serves on the Board of Directors of the Animals and Society Institute. For more information about Liz’s practice: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists