Saving Mr Nature: Anthropomorphism, nature connection and conservation messages.

Many people give human characteristics to nature. This tendency to ‘anthropomorphise’ wildlife can be very appealing and persuasive, leading to greater moral care. Or, unfortunately, it can lead to abuse, with misconceived negative qualities being transferred – magpies and crows come to mind as suffering from such attributions, but judgements based on superstition and perceived otherness are at best a loss, at worse pernicious to a realisation of our shared place in the landscape. However, let’s keep positive, if anthropomorphism can capture attention, change attitudes, behaviour and connection to nature it’s worth thinking about further. And recently a couple of research papers have done just that.

Mr Squirrel's Home

 Mr Squirrel’s Home?

Firstly, with a title good enough to reuse, is Tam’s Saving Mr Nature paper from last year. He notes that few have looked at the topic, yet anthropomorphism is often used in conservation messages, the idea being that humanizing nature makes it easier for people to empathize with it. Similarly, it can lead to a form of connectedness, shared or parallel emotions – although this is perhaps bringing wildlife into our ‘human’ domain, rather than us sharing a place within the animal world. Tam used three experiments to study the link between anthropomorphism and behaviour, with connection to nature being included is a possible mediator in this relationship.

Tam asked students to design posters to promote environmental awareness and the anthropomorphic content was rated. The students’ conservation behaviours were also rated, although the measures were perhaps more like environmental behaviours. The results found a relationship between anthropomorphic content used by students and these self-reported environmental behaviours.

The second study presented students with newsletters about environmental crisis, with anthropomorphism manipulated through the language used, e.g. referring to Mr Nature. The anthropomorphised messages led to an increase in nature connectedness measures taken after reading the newsletter. No follow-up evaluation was completed to look for sustained impact.

The final study included both nature connection and conservation behaviour measures, with anthropomorphism manipulated in images, rather than the text, using the posters from the first study. Once again anthropomorphism increased self-report connection to nature and conservation behaviours, with nature connectedness being involved in the link to conservation behaviours. That is, the posters generated a sense of connection and this led to increased conservation behaviours.

One aspect of the research worth noting is that it was anthropomorphic messages leading to NC rather than exposure to nature as found in previous studies, although this was an immediate snapshot rather than using a follow-up looking for sustained changes.

Given the results, Tam suggested that anthropomorphism could be used in education narratives and campaigns. However, a number of possible drawbacks were noted. Some have suggested that such an approach is best suited to children. Or there are worries that such messages lead to an incorrect conceptual understanding of the natural world. Finally, some wildlife can be overlooked if it fits human-like qualities less well, e.g. bears versus crayfish.

In a follow-up study, Tam looks at who anthropomorphic messages work best for, in fact, for some people they may backfire. The study looked at the background motivations and persuasions and their links to people who need ‘effectance or social connection’. Effectance relates to the need for control over ones life and destiny, such that people who enjoy this control are more likely to anthropomorphise. Social connection is the need for relationships with others, and anthropomorphising is a way of fulfilling this need, for example lonely people with a less secure attachment to other individuals can get social connection from a pet they give human like qualities to. So the idea is that anthropomorphised messages will be more effective for those people who need control and social connection.

As in the earlier paper, over two studies participants saw anthropomorphised messages and completed questionnaires on environmental attitudes and green behaviours. The results showed that the effectiveness of anthropomorphised messages depends on people’s need for social relationships and control. For these people the messages related to self-reported improvements in pro-environmental behaviours such as intention to participate in environmental movements. However, for people without these needs anthropomorphised messages were best avoided.

Targeting messages to differing groups of people is difficult, but Tam offers some direction. For example, those who seek control are more likely to engage with news websites, so adverts can be targeted. As technology and research progresses it may even be possible to segment people based on the content of their tweets, allowing further targeting. If we want to save Mr Nature we need to knock on the right doors.

Tam, K. P. (2014). Are anthropomorphic persuasive appeals effective? The role of the recipient’s motivations. British Journal of Social Psychology.

Tam, K. P., Lee, S. L., & Chao, M. M. (2013). Saving Mr. Nature: Anthropomorphism enhances connectedness to and protectiveness toward nature. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(3), 514-521.

For more on anthropomorphising conservation messages see:

Root-Bernstein, M., Douglas, L., Smith, A., & Veríssimo, D. (2013). Anthropomorphized species as tools for conservation: utility beyond prosocial, intelligent and suffering species. Biodiversity and Conservation, 22(8), 1577-1589.

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About Miles

Applied psychologist researching our connection with nature and ways to improve it. Good for nature, good for you.
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