[Insert Jaws theme music here…]
The journal Science Communication just published an experiment I ran with my good friend Suzannah Evans about the effects of watching Shark Week and watching shark conservation public service announcements. Here’s the link:
We tested how clips from Shark Week that show high levels of shark-on-human violence, mild shark-on-human violence, or no shark-on-human violence and are then followed by one of three commercials (A shark conservation PSA featuring a celebrity, a non-celebrity PSA, or a Wendy’s pretzel burger spot) influence audiences’ fear of sharks, perceived threat of a shark attack, intentions to seek more information about sharks, and intentions to participate in shark conservation efforts.
We found that any type of shark-on-human violence resulted in increased fear and perceived personal threat of a shark attack, even after seeing a PSA stating that shark attacks are rare and humans are the ones killing sharks at a dangerously high rate, forcing many shark species to the brink of extinction. Our brains may know the statistics, but our hearts react strongly to graphic images of shark teeth and blood in the water.
We did find, however, that viewing a shark conservation PSA resulted in higher intentions to seek shark information and to support conservation compared to those who did not see a PSA. So, these messages were not entirely ineffective for the conservation groups who run them alongside the ever-popular Shark Week. Additionally, we found that feelings of compassion and interest generated by viewing the PSAs were strong predictors of intentions to support shark conservation.
This experiment wasn’t just an academic exercise. The Discovery Channel really does air shark conservation PSAs during Shark Week programming. Our study showed that this practice, while bringing attention to shark conservation, doesn’t necessarily correct or alleviate the public’s fear of sharks and overstated perceptions of their own chances of being attacked. More work remains to be done in this area to see how messages can influence public support for conservation.
It was a really fun study to do and I must also thank Scott for helping us edit the stimulus materials together.
July 2015 Update:
During Shark Week 2015, this study received some media attention. Check out these articles, many featuring interviews with my fabulous co-author Suzannah Evans:
And, click here to read an op-ed Suzannah and I wrote for The Conversation about this study and its implications for mediated conservation efforts.