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Tackling Obstacles in Our Own Psychology and Harmful Systems When Transitioning to a Vegan Lifestyle

Blog Post by Contributor Kimberly Spanjol, Ph.D., LMHC, LBA, BCBA-D

As the global climate crisis and environmental catastrophes intensify, the vulnerability and interconnection of ALL life is becoming increasingly apparent to a greater number of people.  The importance of addressing past and present relations between human and nonhuman animals (henceforth referred to as “animals”) is more pressing than ever.

Greater numbers of people have become more interested in reducing harm to other humans, animals and the environment through a vegan lifestyle when they learn about the detrimental impacts and heinous cruelty of industries that process, test on and otherwise exploit sentient beings for food, clothing, and other products.

A still relatively small number of people are expanding their compassion toward other animals, motivating them to transition their behavior toward making less harmful choices. It can be extremely difficult to achieve success in living kindly when the dominant culture and harmful systems we live in view and behave as if other beings are commodities existing solely for our use and pleasure. 

Knowledge of research that helps us understand human attitudes and emotions toward other animals can be extremely helpful in successfully transitioning and sustaining a lifestyle that causes less harm, even when existing in seemingly unavoidable systems that both intentionally and unintentionally cause extreme suffering. We can prepare ourselves for the psychological and systemic barriers that typically arise when transitioning to a kinder and more ethical lifestyle.

Understanding Harmful Attitudes and Beliefs: The Human Need to Differentiate Ourselves From Other Animals

People typically differentiate themselves from other animals in order to exploit and use them, but also as a way to provide a sense of place for themselves in the world that is above animals in a socially created hierarchy of status.   This benefits all humans, regardless of where they may fall on the spectrum of privilege compared to other humans, and can be considered an adaptive need to elevate one’s humanity. Human moral evaluations of animals are often determined by this need.

TJ Kasperbauer, in his 2019 book Subhuman: The Moral Psychology of Human Attitudes Toward Animals, deeply explored the role of animals as a contrast class to humans drawing from the literature on the dehumanization process.  He reminds us that dehumanization was used throughout history to justify cruel treatment of certain groups – for example, Nazis compared Jews to rats; Black American slaves were compared to apes. We can understand human psychological thought and attitudes toward animals when we look at how animal comparisons are used to demean other human beings by identifying them as non-human and labeling them as inferior.

You can explore your own attitudes toward animals and consider….

  1. How you view them. For example, when you see other animals do you experience them as food or other productsfor your consumption, or as sentient beings deserving of your respect and care? Do you see some animals as deserving of your care and others not deserving?
  2. Do you believe that your status as human entitles you to participate in the suffering of other animals? Where do these beliefs originate from?
  3. Are your beliefs helpful or harmful toward creating a more humane lifestyle and a kinder world?
  4. Would it benefit yourself and others, both human and non-human, to shift your attitudes, beliefs and behaviors? How?

Understanding Human Emotional Responses to Other Animals

Human emotions have been studied deeply by many researchers over prolonged periods of time. Emotions are largely processed unconsciously and greatly impact human psychology, moral judgments and ethical behavior.  Emotions can be difficult to detect, hard to change, and are often resistant to rational control. They drive people to become cognitively rigid and defend their initial reactions, rather than revisiting them, even in light of new information received (see Kasperbauer, 2019).

Our emotions around animal suffering are influenced by situational factors that impact our judgments and biases. However, these unconscious cognitive experiences can be brought to the surface of awareness and examined, influencing our attitudes and expanding our critical thinking.

Transforming Our Harmful Attitudes, Beliefs, Emotions and Behavior Toward Animals

Research on racist attitudes can assist in transforming both individual and systematic speciest behavior toward animals. This research demonstrates that moral change has many emotional and situational obstacles that are the main drivers of attitudes and beliefs (see Kasperbauer, 2019).

Typically, people must be put into situations that are very different from what they would normally experience in order to demonstrate a shift in their biases and judgments. 

While emotions can be modified with effort and support, the desire to change an emotional response and even make an effort to do so is often insufficient in creating sustained attitudinal and behavior change.

Instead, some type of properly informed external support, such as support that can be offered by likeminded others, supportive family members and friends, or a skilled therapist, is often required to deal with the challenge of external pressures humans experience when shifting behaviors.  

This is particularly true when a desired behavior, such as living a kinder vegan lifestyle, does not conform with dominant social norms and expectations. Even people with innately high intelligence cannot consistently control automatic emotional processes without some form of external assistance (see Kasperbauer, 2019). The self-regulation and goal setting that is required for behavioral change is also more difficult to achieve when human mental resources are depleted.

In light of all these obstacles, evidence supports including the following in order to set yourself up for living kindly in an often cruel world:

  • Engage in mindfulness practices to increase your awareness, choice and emotional regulation. Be sure to include practices that cultivate and expand compassion for self and others (see for example
  • Expect and identify obstacles to changing behavior and create a plan to deal with them proactively. These obstacles can include forms of sabotage in close relationships with others who may fear and resist changes in your behavior, the availability and accessibility of cruelty-free food and products, the social stigma of making kinder choices in a system that markets, normalizes, and glamorizes cruelty, etc.
  • Research the truth of individual and systematic cruelty behind consumer marketing, and actively expose yourself to new ideas and experiences that connect behavior to harmful consequences to fuel your commitment. This can include watching documentaries, attending activist meetings, visiting ethical animal sanctuaries and rescues and more.
  • Explore and identify your personal values and create meaningful, attainable goals attached to them to shape your prosocial behaviors incrementally over time and build on them. 
  • Measure and celebrate your progress. Provide yourself with the resources needed to sustain and make continued progress. This is essential – without this assistance and support, people are limited in their ability to meet individual behavioral and social moral goals.  

As human emotions toward other animals change through social justice work and influence, dominant attitudes will continue to shift and may one day more closely match ethical prosocial goals.  This will of course make meeting individual goals toward living kindly easier to accomplish. Social and political change support individual change and vice versa.   Even then, psychological blind spots will apply to social institutions as well as individuals, as they are simply a collective of humans and our inherent limitations (see Kasperbauer, 2019).

Working in community with other likeminded people is critical toward creating individual and systemic prosocial behavioral thought and change. Limited resources such as time and emotional resilience can be combined and make change more likely than individuals acting on their own.  Individuals can also combine their strengths to pursue specific moral goals and share decision making procedures over the long haul. Persistence over time is key for driving prosocial change.

The more we know about the capabilities and limitations of human psychology and how humans operate, the more we can use these findings to understand how this in turn shapes public policy regarding marginalized groups like animals.  We must also address real world conditions and barriers to prosocial behavior such as corruption, poverty, greed, self-interest, apathy, bureaucracy and uncertainty when examining issues that impact animals – which again can be most effectively accomplished in healthy and supportive relational settings (Kasperbauer, 2019; Lawford-Smith, 2012).

People tend to be divorced from contingencies that matter as we often do not see or connect the harmful consequences of our own and systemic behavior. We must keep this in our own and others consciousness as we forge ahead toward creating real and sustained individual and systemic equitable change for all animals – including our ourselves.


Kasperbauer, T. (2018). Subhuman: The Moral Psychology of Human Attitudes Toward Animals. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lawford-Smith, H. (2012). Non-Ideal Accessibility. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice16(3), 653–669. doi: 10.1007/s10677-012-9384-1

Kimberly Spanjol, Ph.D., LMHC, LBA, BCBA-D is a Licensed and Doctoral Level Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Humane Educator. She holds certifications in Animals and Human Health, Animal Assisted Interventions, and Teaching Mindfulness to Youth.  She has served as an educator, researcher, consultant and clinician.  Dr. Spanjol is currently an Assistant Professor at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. She teaches courses in Environmental Crime, Environmental Justice, Species Justice and more.  Her clinical work is focused on children, teens and young adults with a variety of behavioral, developmental and mental health issues as well as their families.  Dr. Spanjol has worked in private practice, educational, and correctional settings for more than 25 years. Her canine therapy partner, Ella, creates miracles in human health and happiness regularly.  Dr. Spanjol’s areas of expertise are Behavior Modification, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Social Emotional Learning, Humane Education, Intersectionality and Social Justice, Ethical Animal-Assisted Therapy, The Human-Animal Bond, Animals and Criminal Justice, Animal Protection and Environmental Criminology.




Tackling Obstacles in Our Own Psychology and Harmful Systems When Transitioning to a Vegan Lifestyle

Liz Hirky, PhD

Liz Hirky, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with specialty training in clinical health psychology and interpersonal psychodynamic psychotherapy and over 25 years clinical practice experience in hospital, academic, and private practice settings. Currently, she is the Director of Clinical Training for the Clinical Psychology PhD Program, Health Emphasis, at Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. Dr. Hirky’s private practice is based in NYC; for additional information, click here. Liz is currently Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the Animals and Society Institute, an independent non-profit think tank, whose mission is to advance human knowledge to improve animal lives, in order to create a compassionate world where animals flourish.

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APA Reference
Hirky, L. (2020). Tackling Obstacles in Our Own Psychology and Harmful Systems When Transitioning to a Vegan Lifestyle. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Feb 2020
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