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Cognition and perception

We believe that beautiful animals are more deserving of our protection

But why?

11 August 2021

By Emma Young

Do you think a ladybird is more beautiful than a locust? If you do, you probably also feel that the ladybird is "purer" than the locust, and this leads you to believe that it possesses more inherent moral worth. This, at least, is the conclusion of a new paper that inextricably links perceptions of purity, beauty, and moral standing for people as well as animals, and even landscapes and buildings.

Earlier studies have found that the more we feel an entity has a mind, and is capable of sensations and feelings, the greater its moral standing — that is, we think that there is a stronger moral aspect to decisions about to how it should be treated. Aesthetic judgements have an impact, too — people and animals perceived to be more beautiful tend to be perceived as having a greater moral standing.

Now the new work, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, on a total of more than 1,600 people, finds that perceptions of purity should be added into these equations.

In the first of six studies, Christoph Klebl at the University of Melbourne and colleagues used a measure of "desire to protect" a number of animals as an indicator of the moral standing ascribed to each. The participants also rated the degree to which each "ugly" or "beautiful" fish, butterfly or bird (examples of each were selected by the researchers) made them think of something "pure", as well as how useful and inspiring they were, and how much they made them feel disgusted, afraid or sad.

Purity perceptions emerged as being relevant to the desire to protect. In fact, there was no direct effect of beauty (vs ugliness) on moral standing; instead, animals judged to be more beautiful were also judged to be more pure, and it was this that led participants to see them as having greater moral standing. (Perceptions of how "useful" the animals were also relevant).

A second study involved 12 photos of human faces, half previously judged to be attractive and half unattractive. It produced very similar results: perceptions of beauty were linked to purity judgements, and so to moral standing scores.

Next, the team turned their attention to inanimate targets. They found that, again, participants judged "beautiful" vs "ugly" lakes, mountains and even buildings to be "purer" and to be more deserving of protection, which the team again interpreted as reflecting greater moral standing. Again, though, perceived utility (and, for buildings, judgements of how inspiring each example was) did also influence the results.

If you're wondering whether a desire to protect a lake, say, really reflects judgements of moral standing, the researchers did, too. Follow-up studies used a more explicit moral standing scale for the animals and buildings included in the earlier studies (rather than the "protection deservedness" scale). Participants had to rate the extent to which harming the animal or building would be morally wrong, for example. And again, beautiful animals and buildings were seen as more pure, and this lead to higher moral standing scores.

"The present studies provided empirical evidence that people attribute moral standing to a wide range of beautiful targets, including both sentient beings (humans and animals) and non-sentient entities (landscapes and buildings)", the researchers note. Beyond that, "we provided empirical evidence for purity intuitions as a psychological mechanism through which people view beautiful entities as possessing moral standing."

Conservation organisations are sometimes criticised for picking attractive flagship species or sites. But this work does suggest that the more beautiful the threatened target, the more strongly people will feel that those threats are morally wrong. If an "ugly" species in dire need of help shares a threatened habitat with a more attractive species, then focusing on the cute one could well be the sensible approach.

The results suggest that focusing on the purity of other at-risk targets could be useful, too. Conservation efforts might perhaps highlight the purity of a building's Modernist style, say, or the pure, original nature of an old-growth forest. "Our findings… suggest novel and practical avenues through which to leverage moral concern for a wide range of targets such as animals, plants, or works of architecture," the team concludes.

Further reading

– Beyond Aesthetic Judgment: Beauty Increases Moral Standing Through Perceptions of Purity

About the author

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest