High Sensitivity Can Help Explain the Willingness to Switch to Veganism

high sensitivity and veganism

When we consider the factors that explain why some people become vegan but not others, or why some find it easier to make the switch than others, one factor that is sometimes overlooked is personality. Vegan activists and campaigners might point to a range of psychological factors that get in the way of people adopting a vegan lifestyle, including cognitive dissonance, cultural upbringing, convenience, and social bonding through eating the same food (or, conversely, not wanting to stand out and feel alienated). But I think vegan activists often overlook how powerful personality differences can be in the decision to become vegan, or the ease with which people make that switch. Here I have in mind one specific personality trait: high sensitivity.

I touched on the relationship between sensitivity and veganism in a previous post, drawing attention to research on how meat eaters were less likely to suffer from mental health issues than vegetarians and vegans. One might be tempted to draw the conclusion that this is because vegetarians and vegans must have higher rates of nutritional deficiencies.

(While a badly planned vegan diet can put one at higher risk of certain nutritional deficiencies, a systematic review published in Nutrients highlighted that there are “nutrient inadequacies across all dietary patterns, including vegan, vegetarian and meat-based diets.” Despite the general lower intake of certain nutrients in vegan diets, the researchers behind this review concluded that “plant-based diets are generally better for health”.) 

The correlational study that found meat eaters generally have better mental health does not show what the cause is behind this observation. As I point out in my post on this research, the reason why vegetarians and vegans might have poorer mental health could be because people with mental health issues might turn to a plant-based diet as a way to improve their well-being. But another possible reason is that those with high sensitivity are more likely to give up animal products.

High sensitivity is a heritable personality trait, so it is heavily influenced by genes. Those who possess this trait (highly sensitive persons, or HSPs) have stronger reactions to all sorts of stimuli, and research has consistently found that higher sensitivity is associated with other personality traits, including higher neuroticism and openness to experience.

If ethical vegans tend to be more sensitive as people, then this could help explain why they are more likely to struggle with their mental health. After all, higher neuroticism means being more prone to negative emotions (e.g. anxiety and depression), emotional instability, poor self-regulation, difficulty in dealing with stress, and self-doubt. But mental health aside, another common experience of an HSP is a sensitivity to animal suffering. Seeing or thinking about animal suffering can affect HSPs much more deeply than those lower in sensory processing sensitivity (SPS): the innate personal disposition of being sensitive to subtle stimuli and being easily over-aroused by external stimuli. Psychologists use the term SPS to refer to the experiences of HSPs.

SPS is characterised by a high degree of sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. Part of this disposition can include a tendency to be more distressed and bothered by animal suffering. Dr Elaine Aron (who coined the term HSP), along with other researchers, discovered in interviews that HSPs show a greater degree of empathy for non-human animals than non-HSPs. As a consequence of this, an HSP is likely to have a different response to watching a documentary about factory farming than a non-HSP.

This does not mean non-HSPs (who make up 75–80% of the population) don’t also experience a visceral, empathetic response to footage of animal abuse and exploitation. It might just mean that it is more likely for an HSP to have a stronger emotional reaction, and the strength of this reaction could help explain why they find it easier to commit to going (and staying) vegan.

For the HSP, the strong wish for animal suffering to stop can override the barriers that often prevent others from committing to a vegan lifestyle. This is not to say that HSPs aren’t also persuaded by the philosophical arguments in favour of veganism, nor do differences in sensitivity to animal suffering mean that non-HSPs who became vegan weren’t also influenced by feelings of empathy and compassion. But again, differences in sensitivity could be an important factor that accounts for someone finding it easier to embrace veganism and more deeply internalise associations between animal products and animal suffering.

The fact that HSPs tend to score higher in openness to experience might also be a factor in why they could be more receptive to veganism than non-HSPs. This is because if you are high in this trait, you are more willing to embrace new ideas and behaviours. People high in openness are also more open to trying new foods, which could help explain why some people find it easier to switch to a vegan diet than others.

I’ve been thinking again about the links between personality traits and philosophical positions (which I previously discussed here). The philosophers William James and Friedrich Nietzsche both argued that our philosophical worldviews are essentially reflections of our personality. When worldviews clash, what we’re really witnessing is the clash of different personalities. And when someone puts forward a case for their philosophical position, what they’re really trying to do is justify who they are as a person, or what they feel strongly. As Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil (1886):

What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly…[is] that they are not honest enough in their work, although they make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic… while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of “inspiration” – most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract – that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact.

Nietzsche, then, might view arguments in favour of ethical veganism with suspicion, doubting that all commitments to them come from a place of cold logic and reasoning. Instead, these arguments could function as post hoc rationalisations by people looking to defend their personal characteristics and desires. This might be quite a cynical way of viewing vegans, as it may run the risk of dismissing all commitments to veganism (or any other moral decision, for that matter) as an attempt to justify oneself to the world. Instead, I think we can accept that a vegan lifestyle has a personal and emotional component without discounting the fact that philosophical arguments tend to be crucial in one’s commitment to veganism. One can also find resonance between personality, emotion, and ethics – if they all converge towards a common experience, or value, such as empathy or compassion.

If 15–20% of the population are HSPs, according to Aron, then perhaps this is something that vegans (including activists) should consider when discussing the subject of animal consumption with non-vegans. Personality differences mean that one way of approaching the subject could resonate strongly with one person but not someone else.  

Leave a Reply