Peer pressure is one of the most influencing factors in the human brain. People WANT to do what other people are doing, and fear being different -- because often, being different means being ostracized.
There is a popular, old, psychology study that put 5 people in a room -- four were 'plants' and one was an actual test subject. Then, all of the subjects were shown a slide with 5 lines on it and asked to identify which line was longest. The obvious answer was line #4. However, in the study, the first four subjects (all 'plants')answered that the longest line was line #5. So when it came time for the true test subject to answer, 1/3 of the test subjects actually answered that the longest line was line #5 - even though the answer was obviously incorrect. But to them, it was "safer" to answer the question like everyone else even though it was obviously wrong, than to be correct and be different.
We know this about peer pressure - -that people want to do what they perceive everyone else to be doing. And yet, it seems in the animal welfare world, we all too often act as if everyone is doing it wrong (even though, most often the statement isn't true). Instead of focusing on the positive and the reality that most people are really doing it right and creating positive peer pressure so others will follow, we tend to focus on the opposite and act like everyone is doing it wrong. This often leads to having the exact opposite impact that we'd really prefer. Instead of feeling like they are different for doing it wrong, we provide very little motivation for people to do it right, because they perceive that no one else is doing it right.
Examples are easy to come by:
"BSL (Breed Specific Legislation) is spreading like wildfire"
It sure seems like it sometimes, doesn't it? But every week in my weekly roundup, I keep tabs on cities that are discussing breed specific legislation. And over the past several years, even though a large number of cities have discussed the idea of breed bans, the vast majority decide against it. And yet, it is common for cities to introduce breed bans because they feel like "everyone else" is doing it.
By and large, most cities listen to the experts in their communities and decide against breed bans of any type. While cities passing it are still more common than they should be, they are the exception, not the rule. And treating them like the "rule", we create the image that that is what other cities are doing. And look no further than the recent rash of cities discussing mandatory spay/neuter of 'pit bulls' in California or the cities looking to ban pet sales in pet stores (which none have approved) to see that most cities do what they think others are doing. And what most end up doing is passing responsible laws.
"The reason we have pet overpopulation is because most people don't spay/neuter their pets"
We hear this one a lot -- however, the reality is that most people already do alter their pets. According to last year's Pet Smart survey, 65% of all recently acquired pets are altered. This number jumps dramatically for pets that have been owned for a long time. According to research from Ally Cat Allies, over 80% of house cats are already altered, and that number may be closer to 96% in households with a household income of $35,000 or more.
Instead of creating the narrative that most people don't alter their pets (and thus, why would you want to be different?), why not create the narrative that most people DO alter their pets (which is true), and thus, if you don't, you're the outsider?
"We should ban pets stores to keep people from buying puppy mill dogs because people don't understand about puppy mills".
Back to that pesky Petsmart Survey again, but only about 8% of the population gets their pets from pet stores. Meanwhile, most people have a negative impression of 'puppy mills' (although they admittedly don't always make the connection between pet stores and puppy mills). Currently, more than 1/2 of the population expects to get their next pet from a shelter. Wouldn't we be better off promoting how "everyone" is adopting to make it seem like it is the right thing to do?
"Most pet owners are irresponsible"
As a society, we have never taken better care of our animals. In spite of the down economy, spending on pet care has continued to grow. More pets rae sharing our homes, and our beds than ever before. And yet, we tend to want to focus on the few people who are not responsible.
There just seems to be a better way to do this, and to talk about the needs of animals. I feel like if we focused on the positive situations, we could dramatically improve things for animals.
Calgary, AB has one of the lowest incidents per capita of aggressive dogs in North America. One of the reasons for their success, in my opinion, is that the leader of animal control up there, Bill Bruce, always focuses on the positives of the pet-owning population in Calgary. It is amazing the number of times you see the man quoted as saying that most pet owners in Calgary are responsible and that he just needs to get the few that aren't to be better. He has created a culture in the city where the expectation is that people are, and will be, responsible pet owners. And the people have responded by wanting to do what "everyone else" is doing.
In Oakland, CA, the folks at Bad Rap have reached out into communities where proper pet care, vaccinations and spay/neuter were not the norm -- and have begun creating a culture where it is becoming more commonplace. And instead of condemning those who are not yet taking advantage of their services, they are celebrating the ones that do. And thus, creating a culture where "all the cool kids" are taking pride and expert care of their pets (including spay/neuter).
I really do think that how we speak about animal welfare issues has a major impact on how the public views how we treat our animals. While we shouldn't necessarily hide from the negative, it shouldn't be our sole talking point (or even our primary one), because it creates the image that everyone is irresponsible -- and we know peer pressure can be a very influential tool.
So instead of focusing on the people who are using dogs to fight (and thus promoting the negative culture), we should celebrate the families that love their dogs and made them part of the family.
Instead of focusing so much attention on the people who buy their pets from pet stores, we should spend more time celebrating the people who adopt.
Creating peer pressure toward the positive can be very motivating...because people want to do what everyone else is doing and celebrating.