On Persuasion and Vegan Dining Halls in Texas

September 9, 2011

By Janani Bala, Regional Field Organizer, CA

Last month, the University of North Texas (get ready for it) opened the first all-vegan dining hall in the country.  At the same time, the university opened another dining hall that features Southern comfort food.  According to University of North Texas Dining services manager Ken Botts, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, the intention of either dining hall was not to make particular political statements, nor create a vegan food vs. fried chicken showdown.   Botts says the  purpose was to provide options that would meet student demand from both ends of the omnivore-herbivore spectrum.  

For me, this is an important lesson in the power of ability vs. motivation in influencing decisionmakers.  Whether in an effort to bring more vegan food or just more real food to university dining halls, it can be important to remember that administrators’ motivations for aligning with your agenda do not have to match your own.  With a look at Stanford Professor BJ Fogg’s behavior model, we can start to understand the relative importance of ability and motivation in persuasion.  In the Fogg behavior model, increasing an individual’s ability to do an action can be as effective (and in most cases, easier) than increasing their motivation.  Changing motivation, after all, requires a shift in mindset; it is contingent on prolonged, deliberate interaction.  Changing ability requires moving things around in an individual’s environment.  The most exciting aspect of this model, to me, is that because human beings have a proclivity for cognitive agreement (that is, we like our beliefs to match our actions), shifting someone’s actions by changing their ability first can then go on to affect their motivation.  

In the case of the North Texas Dining Hall, the shift in ability was the change in student demand.  Dining halls, after all, need a supportive (or at least non-antagonistic) consumer base in order to change their practices.  The effect, however, is that the university is directing money towards animal product-free food, and providing space for all students, vegan or not, to explore eating lower on the food chain, and start to get a real handle on what vegan food can look like.