One Way Sharks Get a Bad Rap
A new study looks at how the music played in the background of shark documentaries affects the viewers’ opinion of sharks. Not surprisingly, ominous music resulted in a more negative opinion of sharks than light music or silence.
Researchers Nosal, Keenan, Hastings, and Gneezy did a series of experiments in which they showed subject a 60-second clip of sharks swimming. To one group the video contained ominous music playing in the background. To a second group the music was uplifting, and to a third there was only silence. They also had control groups to which they just played the music without the video.
They found that when the video of the swimming sharks was combined with ominous music the subjects assigned more negative terms to sharks and fewer positive terms. There was no difference between uplifting music and silence, and there was no effect from just listening to ominous music itself.
There was also no difference in terms of support for conservation measures for sharks. In a follow up experiment, however, participants were more likely to donate to shark conservation efforts after watching a video with uplifting music than with either ominous music or silence (or with music alone).
Therefore there was a consistent effect, but the overall effect was modest. There are few caveats to this, however. First, shark documentaries are already quite popular and many people in the study may have already had fairly fixed attitudes toward sharks. They might be pushed in one direction or the other, but not change their fundamental views about things like conservation.
Further, this was just a 60-second video clip of sharks swimming. There was no editorial content. The studies simply controlled for one element of documentaries, the music, and showed that it had a psychological effect.
It should also be pointed out that the study was very short term. They did not do follow up testing a week, month, or year out to see if the exposure had any lasting effect.
Some Shark Statistics
The fact that sharks are unfairly portrayed as killing machines has been a long complaint of scientists and conservationists. Shark Week type documentaries often play to the drama and fear of shark attacks, but in reality sharks are just another predator, and not particularly dangerous to humans.
To put things into perspective, only about 12 shark species out of 500 are considered dangerous to humans. Between 2006 and 2010 there were 179 shark attacks in the US, and only three fatalities. Worldwide there is an average of 4.2 fatal shark attacks per year.
By comparison, 7-8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year in the US, with about 5 fatalities per year.
As an interesting aside, the National Aquarium, while debunking myths surrounding sharks, perpetuate a few myths of their own. They list a few things more likely to kill you than sharks. The list included champagne corks, which is simply not true. There are no reported fatalities from champagne corks, which are far too slow and soft to cause serious, let alone fatal, damage. The worst that happens is a detached retina if you hit yourself square in the eye.
They also mention falling coconuts hitting people on the head. This is another persistent myth. Only a few such deaths have ever been recorded in the literature, and best estimates put the number of deaths from falling coconuts around 1-2 per year, fewer than from sharks.
The other comparisons they point out are true, however, including being hit by an asteroid. However, the asteroid comparison is tricky. This is not calculated from the number of people actually killed by asteroids each year (which is zero) but the cumulative risk over thousands of years of the Earth being struck by an asteroid.
The Power of Documentaries
The real take-home from this study is that it supports something most of us already know – there is emotional power in a well-crafted film, and music is a huge part of it. We mostly experience this in the theater for entertainment. The filmmaker’s art has progressed incredibly in the last century. A great film can manipulate emotions and experiences very effectively.
These same skills, however, can be applied to documentaries in order to manipulate opinions. The techniques are so common we often see them parodied, even in cartoons (The Simpsons has done this more than once). Using slow motion, cut scenes, dramatic voice-overs, and choice of music can significantly affect the overall impression created in viewers. The facts are almost secondary.
Viewers, therefore, should be highly skeptical whenever watching any film designed to affect their opinions about a subject.