Sharkbites Saturday

Intent to Bite: changing attitudes towards sharks

This post for Sharkbites Saturdays comes from Haley Kilgour, a Marine Conservation MPS student and and intern at University of Miami’s Shark Research and Conservation Lab.

Reference: Pepin-Neff, Christopher L., and Thomas Wynter. “Reducing Fear to Influence Policy Preferences: An Experiment with Sharks and Beach Safety Policy Options.” Marine Policy, vol. 88, Feb. 2018, pp. 222–229.


Figure 1. Time magazine cover during “Summer of the Shark: The latest science: how they hunt, where they roam and how to get out of their way” in 2001. (source: Time Magazine)

Fear is a powerful driver of human behavior, whether it’s used for progress or to rationalize drastic actions. Shark bites often create cries for “something must be done”, which when approached in the heat of the moment and without logic can have devastating consequences. With relation to shark bites, this idea usually causes policy and governments, many times in developing countries—though not exclusively—to steer towards attempting to eliminate or curtail shark populations. Pepin-Neff and Wynter (2018) note that occurrence of shark bites has been used to rationalize delisting sharks from protected species lists.

With immediate and never-ending access to media, shark bites, and the hysteria surrounding them, can quickly become sensationalized, with stories embellished and incidences exaggerated, further exacerbating the fear of sharks (a great example of this is the Summer of the Shark in 2001). Historically and now with more people making use of the beach and oceans, sharks are seen as threats to humans and human activity that need to be eliminated. Thankfully, in recent years, the scientific community has begun to work to protect elasmobranchs—which includes sharks and rays—and change public opinion, though it’s an uphill battle. While things like the University of Miami’s Shark Research and Conservation Lab, run by Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, takes citizen scientists and school groups out tagging and work to educate people about sharks and Discovery Chanel’s Shark Week paints sharks in a better light (albeit as entertainment), sharks are still perceived as evil and movies such as The Shallows (2016) and The Meg (2018) can undo the work that conservation groups have done.

The Study

The aim of the study by Pepin-Neff and Wynter (2018) was to look at how fear, in this case—fear of sharks, can be reduced or exacerbated depending on messages someone is exposed to. Pepin-Neff and Wynter (2018) surveyed visitors to the SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium in Australia, asking participants about feelings and perceptions of sharks, pride in local shark populations, fear of sharks and shark bites, who is to blame for shark bites, and the role of government in shark bite prevention. Those surveyed were primed with two different conditions designed to cue different perceptions of shark behavior or were in the control group. The Intent group differed from the control group in that they were asked to rate sharks’ eyesight on a scale of 1-10, asked if they thought the sharks in the aquarium could see them, and if they agreed with the statement: “Sharks see us and avoid us when we are in the water.” The third treatment was the Science treatment, which had the additional question: “Indicate how you feel about the following: ‘Of more than 400 species of shark, only seven are known to bite humans.’”.

While every group showed a reduction in fear of sharks, it was only significant for the Intent and Control groups. Pepin-Neff and Wynter believe this result occurred due to the repeated use of the word shark, which cued the primed response of fear, but when exposed to live sharks at the aquarium, their fears were not reinforced. Thus, sometimes the fear of something is more dangerous than the cause of the fear. They also believe there was a reduction in fear because this study provided a visual cue that highlighted the intentionality of the sharks, in that sharks do not attack humans with malicious intent.

Figure 2. Guests in the SEA LIFE Sydney aquarium’s shark tunnel. (source: SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium)

Why it matters?

            Knowing that determining intent in cases of shark bites can affect the response of fear can aid in reducing drastic reactions of fear. In another study by Pepin-Neff and Wynter (2017) they found that those who view shark bites as intentional are more than 2.5 times more likely to support lethal policy responses. Bringing intent to the foreground of shark bite incidents, while not reducing fear wholly, might allow environmental policymaking and species conservation to proceed without severe backlash from those who would cull sharks. This would also allow conservation groups to make headway, as the current attempts to reduce fear by appealing to risk possibilities is ineffective and counterproductive (Pepin-Neff and Wynter, 2018).

Fear is a great motivator that can cause people to take drastic and unnecessary measures. While removing that fear may not be possible, it might be possible to lessen it and allow people to react to sharks and shark encounters with less of a knee-jerk reaction. Neff (2014) found that non-surfers had a higher degree of fear of shark bites than surfers did. Often when listening to interviews of shark bite victims, those that are divers and surfers do not generally blame the shark. It is not that people who engage in these activities do not fear sharks, rather it is that they respect sharks and understand that in all likelihood the shark did not attack them with the intent to do harm as sharks are curious and do make mistakes.

Moving forward with conservation, it might be best to employ the tactic of showing that sharks mean us no more harm—in most human-shark interactions—than any other animal, rather than blasting individuals with research and logic, might aid in changing public opinion of sharks. As long as humans make use of the oceans, shark bites are logistically unavoidable. However, the reaction to bites and the fear driven response is manageable.

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