Making animals more like us could be a key tool for conservationists working to save species, according to a study published in the journal Biodiversity Conservation.
Researchers from the University of Kent, Oxford University, Columbia University and Monash University concluded that we relate better to animals who more closely resemble us, which could help improve the success of conservation efforts.
Anthropomorphism – attributing human characteristics to animals or non-human objects – has long been seen as a scientific sin because it could hamper objectivity when it comes to animal behavior, but possibly more so because humans seem to want to hold onto the belief that we are unique and avoid giving any underlying emotional motivations to animals’ behaviors. However, the researchers involved in this study believe the value of doing so is being underestimated by those who are working to save animals.
“Anthropomorphisation of species is a common way for people to relate to other species but as a conservation tool it is under-used and is not being utilised as a way of effectively promoting the relationships between people and nature through conservation programmes,” said co-author, Diogo Verissimo of the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation Ecology (DICE).
“Despite there being some limitations of using anthropomorphism, for example inappropriate expectations of animals’ behaviour or species picking up negative social stereotypes by being human-like, there is a need for more research in marketing and social sciences that will lead to more effective use of anthropomorphism in conservation outreach,” he added.
Cases of human-like emotions have been well-documented and continue to show animals’ ability to show empathy, altruism, fear, grief, pain and joy. The only thing that’s surprising is that we’re continuously surprised by all the ways animals continue to demonstrate their own intelligence and emotions.
Tapping into our emotional connections with animals has been helpful in efforts to save species such as chimpanzees, while other species who are just as capable of intelligence and suffering are overlooked because “they are not like humans in the ‘right’ ways.” Other species, like wolves, have to overcome embedded stereotypes that they’re vicious killers, despite being what we might describe as shy and family-oriented.
According to the study, marketers can use anthropomorphism to “move away from or reinforce the symbolic meanings associated with a species and in this way construct brand personalities that more effectively resonate with their target audience.”
The study, however, noted that there can be problems in this area aside from placing unfair expectations on animals, noting examples such as the outcome from the movie Finding Nemo, where identifying with an adorable cartoon clownfish resulted in an increased demand for clownfish for aquariums and the overfishing of reefs.
“Scientists have been wary of anthropomorphism for a long time, because it was seen as leading to unscientific hypotheses about animal behaviour. But as conservationists we can look at it as a kind of popular folk theory of the similarities between humans and all other species. These popular ways of relating to the natural world are powerful and we should try to understand and work with them,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Meredith Root-Bernstein of the University of Oxford.
We may not be able to psychically know what other creatures are thinking or feeling, but based on observations of animals and using our ability to empathize, attributing human-like characteristics to their expressions and body language seems inevitable.
In this case, researchers recommend emphasizing characteristics that species already possess to help people engage with them and giving them just enough human-like characteristics to make them a “credible and positive social actor.”
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