Deakin University

File(s) under embargo

Using photo editing to understand the impact of species aesthetics on support for conservation

journal contribution
posted on 2024-03-13, 01:23 authored by Meghan Niamh ShawMeghan Niamh Shaw, M Dunn, S Crowley, N Owen, D Veríssimo
Many threatened species suffer from a lack of conservation attention compared to others. Prioritisation of funding, research and conservation efforts seem to be driven by reasons beyond conservation need. This could be due to a ‘beauty bias’, whereby aesthetically pleasing species receive more attention. We examined how editing an image to increase a species' aesthetic appeal may impact donation choices and public attitude towards that species. We posed two research questions; first, ‘do people make different donation choices when they see original images of a species compared to when they see images of the same species that have been edited to match aesthetic preferences?’ Using hypothetical donation experiments, we asked respondents to allocate funds to the conservation of three pictured species, one ‘aesthetically appealing’, one ‘aesthetically unappealing’, and one whose image was either edited to reflect common aesthetic preferences or left unedited. Our findings suggest that images edited to make an animal more visually appealing tend to receive higher hypothetical donation amounts than original images. We also posed a second research question; ‘How do people of varying conservation expertise respond to original versus edited images of wildlife?’ To investigate this, we ran three focus groups with individuals unfamiliar with our test species, those familiar with two or more of our test species, and with conservation professionals, which showed mixed reactions both within and between groups. Focus group participants with less conservation expertise noted that edited images often seemed ‘cuter’ than unedited images, and were more likely to compare them to cartoon characters. Participants with more conservation expertise and species familiarity reported greater empathy towards unedited images, and noted that the edited images prompted an ‘uncanny valley’ response, highlighting the need for further scrutiny in how photo editing might be used in conservation messaging. Our findings support the beauty bias hypothesis and highlight that decisions on conservation support should acknowledge that less aesthetically pleasing species are disadvantaged in public attention and funding. In addition, the findings highlight the role of conservation expertise in impacting viewer reactions, as well as the ethical implications of editing images of wildlife. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog.



People and Nature




London, Eng.









Usage metrics

    Research Publications


    Ref. manager