Making Animals Human-Like Helps Conservation
August 22, 2013

Making Animals Human-Like Is A Key Tool For Conservation

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Making animals more relatable to humans could be a key move in conservation projects, according to research by conservationists at several universities.

Researchers wrote in the journal Biodiversity Conservation that people's tendency to relate more to animals that bear a resemblance to humans could be a powerful tool for promoting low-profile species that are either endangered or in need of attention.

The scientists suggest that making conservationists more aware of how people construct anthropomorphic meanings around species and how they engage with species can create conservation programs that speak to people through their cultural expectations and emotional connections. Currently, anthropomorphism - or attributing human characteristics to non-human objects or organisms - in conservation is limited to animals such as chimpanzees, polar bears and dolphins, but the researchers believe it could be expanded to other species that may not yet be seen as "worthy" of conservation.

"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 utilized as a way of effectively promoting the relationships between people and nature through conservation programs," said study co-author Diogo Verissimo of the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation Ecology (DICE).

He said that despite limitations in the use of anthropomorphism, there is still a need for more research in marketing and social sciences that will lead to more effective use of anthropomorphism in conservation outreach.

"Scientists have been wary of anthropomorphism for a long time, because it was seen as leading to unscientific hypotheses about animal behavior," explains Dr Meredith Root-Bernstein of the University of Oxford, lead author of the study. "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."

Anthropomorphism is more than just how humans relate to animals, but can also translate into inanimate objects as well. In 2010, researchers looked into the powerful effect of anthropomorphism in how humans interacted with slot machines. The team found that people who felt powerful were more likely to play a slot machine when it had a human-like face. The scientists also said some people felt they could control skin cancer when it was described as having evil intentions to hurt people.