Seeing Red, Acting Green: Biodiversity And Giving
Loss of biodiversity is one of the major challenges of our time. Non-profit organizations all over the world need to raise money to fund their efforts for conservation and habitat protection. Therefore, what motivates people to donate to conservation causes has long been of interest to advocates. In a new study, researchers from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment attempt to answer that question. They provide experimental evidence on the effect of different audio-visual messages on charitable giving and emotional response.
Past studies have found that people tend to support the protection of large, iconic animals, like tigers and dolphins, rather than smaller, less appealing species. Knowledge of this so-called “charismatic megafauna effect,” has led to biodiversity advocates using these animals as the “poster” species when asking for donations. However, some critics have argued that focusing on a few, well-known species can come at the cost of protecting others, and does not necessarily advance the protection of whole ecosystems, of which large mammals are only a small part.
Another finding from previous research, although less well-documented, is the “outrage effect.” Irrespective of specific animal species, people tend to have stronger negative emotions when they hear that environmental harm was caused by humans and not by nature, even if the harm caused is the same.
Previous research has also shown that people generally behave more prosocially in public rather than in private. To what extent this “public recognition effect” applies specifically to charitable giving for biodiversity protection has not been well-researched.
To verify the charismatic megafauna effect, researchers showed three different videos to participants of this study. All videos were about biodiversity loss in the African savanna. The first video featured lions, a charismatic species, and the threat to them if the savanna is not protected. The second video featured bats, a less-appealing species. In the third video, the focus was on the savanna as a whole, with both lions and bats shown together as part of the broader ecosystem. Participants were randomly assigned to watch one of the three videos. Afterwards, they could give any amount between $0 to $25 (provided by the experimenters) to a charitable organization that works to protect the savanna. Researchers included a variation of this experiment to test whether individuals give higher amounts if their donations are publicized. Before donating, some of the participants were informed that if they chose to make a donation, their name and the amount they donated would be printed in a newspaper.
To measure the outrage effect, the same videos were shown, but with the additional information that the cause of threat to lions, bats or the whole ecosystem is human activity, such as hunting and illegal wildlife trade. After seeing these “cause videos” participants answered a questionnaire to measure their emotional state of mind.
Overall, 564 people participated in the experiments. Participants provided a range of demographic and socio-economic information about themselves. This information enabled the researchers to estimate the extent to which individual characteristics determine responses. For example, one consideration was whether they have donated to environmental causes in the past.
Results of the experiments show that the charismatic megafauna effect and the outrage effect do exist. The participants who watched videos showing the human cause of the threat were more interested, angry, and sad than the other participants. However, the researchers did not find that public recognition generally increases the amount donated.
A more detailed analysis of the results reveals interesting patterns of behavior. For example, participants who saw the videos with charismatic lions were more likely to donate. But, among the participants who decided to donate, the lion video did not lead to higher donations than the bat or savanna video. Participants who were informed that humans caused the threat to biodiversity were not more likely to donate. However, those who did donate actually gave more money. With regard to public recognition, only participants who made charitable donations in the past gave more money when they were told that their donation would be made public.
For activists these results could have implications on how to adapt their message according to the specific audience. Featuring charismatic species in outreach messages seems to be the best way to convince people to donate. For messages aimed to solicit donations from people who already recognize the problem of biodiversity loss and are inclined to donate, it might be more beneficial to focus on the threat to ecosystems as a whole and to include the human causes for the threat. Lastly, the offer of publishing donations, for example in a newsletter, might motivate individuals to donate again.