Book Review: Nick Cooney (2011) Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach us About Spreading Social Change (Lantern Books: New York)

Price: ****
Ease of use: ****
Value for EAA beginners: *****
Value for EAA pros: ****


This book by Nick Cooney is an excellent resource for understanding how psychology affects our work in social movements. It draws primarily on external psychological studies, combined with Cooney’s personal advocacy experience, primarily for the Humane League (he had worked for or helped to found many organisations by 2011, and done so for more since then) and some strategic thinking and common sense.

The book is intended to be applicable to any social movement, with his examples frequently alternating between animal advocacy, environmentalism and other causes. This does not significantly detract from its value for animal advocates (even if some of the specific suggestions aren’t directly relevant), although I suspect that advocates for other causes might find that the book focuses on issues most pertinent to animal advocacy.

The structure of the book is simple. Chapters 1 to 3 lay out a variety of cognitive biases that affect how successful various types of advocacy efforts are likely to be. This section leaves you with the impression that successful advocacy is incredibly difficult, and that you shouldn’t rely on your intuitions.

After building up your sense of the gravity of the problems (in the manner of a successful salesman?), Cooney then moves on to demonstrating solutions for the issues. Chapters 4 to 7 all list a huge number of “Tools of Influence” to support our advocacy. The final three chapter then contain wider social scientific learnings and business strategy ideas which put the ideas from the rest of the book into context.

The book is therefore packed full of useful information. Here are some of those who might benefit, organised roughly in order of who I think would benefit most:

  • Advocates hoping to increase the effectiveness of their individual outreach, or increase their chances of success in discussions with corporate, institutional or governmental contacts, partners and targets
  • Those currently working for non-profit organisations who might want to read through to see if the ideas contained might help to streamline their work, and improve efficiencies.
  • Aspiring social scientists, EAA researchers, or those working in non-profits interested in measuring the impact of their own programmes, to read through the first few chapters to broaden their understanding of how cognitive biases might affect their research.
  • If you are already familiar with both psychology and the animal advocacy movement, you might not learn as much from this book, although I imagine that it might still piece some ideas together in ways that you had not already done yourself.

The wide appeal of the book necessarily means that it won’t be consistently 100% useful, word for word, for any one reader. It contains an overwhelmingly large number of useful new ideas for those new to the field of psychology, which makes the book almost intimidating to use.

For those under time pressure, I’d encourage you to follow one of these two strategies to get the most out of the book:

  • Read this list I have created of 23 of the different cognitive biases and 42 of the tools referred to in the book. This list cuts out much of the useful explanation and examples given in the book, but condenses the key concepts. You could copy and paste the information into a separate Excel/Google sheet and add an additional column for the relevance of the concepts to your work. I would advise also buying the book, so that you can look up the specific examples and relevant studies, as and when appropriate.
  • Flick through the book, looking at the clearly labelled subtitles, and stopping to read those strategies which seem most useful for you.

As usual for such books, the Kindle edition is relatively cheap, but the paperback is more expensive than most paperbacks. It gets 4*s anyway, because the book is so packed full of information, most readers would easily get their money’s worth!

For those looking for easier (i.e. less research-heavy) introductions to effective animal advocacy outreach, I’d recommend starting with Friedrich and Ball’s Handbook or Leenaert’s book.

Note, that whilst I am fairly unreservedly endorsing the helpful information and advice contained within Cooney’s book, I am not endorsing his personal conduct. Although I know very little about the issue beyond hearsay, this article addresses some of the concerns. It is a complicated issue, so if you are engaging with it, I encourage you to read to the bottom of the article, which includes some replies. The accusations are grave, but we should not stop benefiting from Cooney’s (otherwise unrelated) productive work – to do so would be to prioritise personal purity over effectiveness in reducing animal suffering.

An additional criticism might be that some of Cooney’s suggestions essentially accept (and therefore, implicitly endorse?) certain assumptions and prejudices. To reject these strategies in favour of challenging privilege might lead to reduced effectiveness in the short term, but might be considered important for the long-term health of the movement, or for its intrinsic value. I don’t have strong views on this issue, but if your views are stronger than mine then you might reject some of the advice in the book, although only a relatively small proportion of the book would be affected. Those interested in the topic might find Melanie Joy’s new essays on privilege useful.

There are some other reviews of Cooney’s book. This one has some interesting rough and ready estimates about the (meta level) impact that this book might have on the effectiveness of animal advocates.