Why We Cull Sharks, Yet Accommodate Jellyfish

This is a human attribution error, perpetuated by fear and a lack of contextual thinking, requiring us to look into our own psyche to resolve.

Humans are on a killing spree, justifying a large-scale hunting program that creates an illusion of 'swimmer safety'. Compared to an annual average of three fatal shark encounters in our waters, approximately 300 Australians die from drowning each year. We control the population of animals that live in the ocean, yet its liquid form is far more likely to kill us. As human beings, it is an automatic reaction to find explanations. We seek someone/thing to blame. In this instance, we take the instinctive behaviour of sharks as a personal insult. We comfortably focus on aspects external to ourselves, attempting to alter our environment, rather than adapting to work in harmony with it.

I was speaking with someone recently who wasn't a diver, nor a coastline inhabiting surfer. Yet, they had a sense of entitled hatred towards sharks. Those evil, asshole sharks. So, where does this humanised persona stem from, that we have elaborately created for a prehistoric mass of cartilage and teeth? And how does our society continue to perpetuate it? With a little investigation into the human irrational fear of sharks, we can recognise the systemic source of this through the language in media and a reiterated fear-driven culture. We can then understand how as human beings, we are often illogical in our reactions, to the point of disadvantaging ourselves.

Back in 1962, the largest shark culling program in Australia commenced on the coastline of Queensland. This shark 'mitigation strategy' was implemented in response to public fears of a perceived, imminent attack. Yes, sharks can execute an impressively powerful bite. So can I when I stumble upon a good burrito. It is a means of their basic survival, so why does it concern us so deeply? How does our relationship to say, jellyfish in Cairns differ? Why are we happy to evacuate waterways for entire seasons and wear specialised equipment to respect their presence, yet they incur less annual fatalities? In addition to crocodiles in the Northern Territory, for whom we adapt our behaviour, by not entering their known habitats. Why must sharks relocate based on our preference to exist in their sanctuary?

At present, a total of 360 drum lines and 30 shark nets are deployed along just the Queensland coast of Australia, with many installed in areas with no recorded history of shark incidents and a number situated within marine protected areas, including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The program thus far has been responsible for the death of over 57’000 sharks and 30’000 other marine animals, including dolphins, rays and the entanglement of over 8 humpback whales this current 2016 migration season. Included in the total deaths are 763 vulnerable Great White Sharks, an animal that is in fact registered under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation ActPeculiarly, there has only been one human death recorded from a Great White Shark in Queensland's history, since colonisation. 

It is now blatantly evident that sharks are critical for the health of our marine ecosystem; so why are human beings quick to shame international, destructive shark-finning practices that are eradicating the animals at a rate of over 11,000 every hour, yet we are contributing to their demise through the implementation of unproven, highly expensive nets and drum lines? It is fascinating to explore the psychology behind the current norm to recognise why it was created and how it continues to exist.

Let's introduce the role of the fundamental attribution error (correspondence bias) and gain an explanation for the undeclared war humans have waged against sharks. Psychology has the potential to play a pivotal role in the evolution of policies around environmental conservation by ironically turning the focus from the environment, to instead addressing the paradigms held by ourselves that impact the environment. The fundamental attribution error is one psychological concept that can be used to elucidate why shark-culling programs are still in effect today. Below are some examples inspecting what causes human irrational fear of sharks and how the inaccurate bias towards this particular species undermines the conservation of our ecosystem and the assurance of our very own livelihood.

The term, fundamental attribution error is a term for an observers tendency to attribute the behaviour of others to what they recognise as probable internal factors, whilst failing to address situational causes as context. For example, we tend to blame others 'lateness' on a lack of organisation, yet we excuse our own  based on traffic. Specifically, negative outcomes produce greater condemnation towards external representatives, whilst positive outcomes produce greater praise, typically of a self-serving nature, even if determined by chance. In this case, we applaud our own punctuality, an internal aspect of ourselves, when we arrive on time. Hence, why we frequently blame a shark (external) when we encounter one, rather than our behaviour (internal), which lead us to enter its realm.

Uncertainty in our minds is driven by neurochemical processes, yet our cognitive preference is for definitive, causal conclusions. We want an explanation, for everything. Even when there is yet to be one. As declared by Kahneman, 'causes' trump statistics, even when they are illusory. It is within our nature to find connections, this is our brains process of increasing efficiency by establishing heuristics (shortcuts). This concept can be applied to the relationship of human beings with sharks. The idea of a shark ‘attack’ itself, insinuates malicious disposition and personal intent. Yet, the situational factors are ignored, centred on the circumstances, which involve a human voluntarily entering a wild environment inhabited by an apex predator, whose natural hunting behaviours serve no direct agenda against people. An effective approach to alleviate this tendency involves further education for humans that challenges the automatic response to attribute human-related traits to sharks. Our perception of bees is reported as more favourable, although ironically they are more than twice as likely to kill us.

Secondly, the instance that the perceiver lacks adequate contextual information regarding a topic, a heavy reliability on dispositional factors is applied to rationalise and process events. With minimal understanding of the situation, in addition to possible environmental or social limitations, there is an increased likelihood of making a fundamental attribution error. We create our own interpretation of subjects based on our experience. Which in the case of sharks, for many humans, the closest they have been, and ever will be, is watching Shark Week. Or when using paranoia-profiting newspapers to wipe their ass. Based on the information presented to the general population, you can see how easily our perceptions of specific animals are formed and influenced. Although, a blanket judgement of all sharks as callous killers has been challenged by scientific evidence, to prove that sharks in fact possess varying personalities themselves. Sharks have been observed to display individual personas, from highly social, playful to solitary. One thing that remains is their innate drive for survival, which on the rare occasion, leads them to mistakenly taste silhouettes that they identify as prey.

In previous research, psychologists have discovered that language is richer in terms used to describe behaviour, rather than those describing situations. In the case of sharks, this allows for monstrous language to be applied to an instinctive, often diffident animal. Australian shark scientists have recognised the impact of the language in the media, stating 38% of reported ‘shark attacks’ in New South Wales from 1970-2009 resulted in absolutely no injury. Language that heavily emphasises behaviour, whilst ignoring the situation is dangerously misleading and perpetuates correspondence bias in humans, solidifying sharks as an "enemy" or exacerbated their role as a threat. Due to this, it is imperative that accurate, non-inflammatory language is used to report incidents. Imagine if terms that discourage the perpetuation of the correspondence bias were adopted, such as shark 'sightings', shark 'encounters', shark 'bites' and fatal 'encounters'?

In addition to these two examples, the final research addressed is around the human beings tendency to be a cognitive miser. When examining causal factors in a given circumstance, not only is preference given to internal factors, but also to efficient and easy explanations, in contrast to those that require the exertion of added mental effort. Through this form of observation, attention is focused on easily processed information and more discrete, yet vitally important contextual cues are neglected. Although the attributions made by a person through this method are not entirely accurate, they persist as a preferred strategy due to saving the observer considerable time and effort when negotiating with the social world. This can explain the targeting of sharks as evil, cold-blooded killers. From the dramatisation of sharks in films, it is effortless for media to preserve the image of a satanic creature, as the human fundamental attribution error allows so. Although, for most human beings inhabiting Earth, the chance of a shark encounter is marginal, with the chance of a shark bite calculated at less than one in 11.5 million in North America. This is the country with the highest rate of attacks. In contrast to domesticated dogs, who have killed more humans over the past fifteen years in Australia, it is evident that we require an overhaul of the current misinformed agenda against sharks.

Through the exploration of the human fundamental attribution error (correspondence bias), a preliminary explanation for the irrational fear and treatment of sharks exists. Based on our human tendency towards dispositional factors and away from situational factors and the role of language and humans as cognitive misers, it is evident how as a society we have constructed a volatile relationship with a species that holds no malicious intent towards us personally. Strategies such as, administering further education, using less inflammatory language and challenging our established shark stereotypes, have the potential to drive a paradigm shift, leading humans to transition from the current, fear-based desire for destruction to a perspective of respect and conservation. In doing so, a further implication might be an informed society that respects the systems that keep us breathing.

We constantly make fundamental attribution errors for our fellow humans, as well as it seems, for other species that we do not understand.


Author: Charlotte Rose Mellis