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Charisma and Culture

We have a particular interest in primates here at CAB Lab, but why do we like them so much?


One theory suggests people are attracted to certain kinds of animals. Big mammals with forward facing eyes (like primates) are particularly popular. Some scientists even identify ‘Cinderella species’ which should be attractive to people, but don’t seem that popular (1). A second theory argues that animals are popular because of the stories people tell about them (2). You might have read 'Curious George' when you were younger, and monkeys are common characters in stories worldwide. This theory is also appealing because it allows people to have different opinions about the same animal. Although we find monkeys adorable, primates which eat crops can be unpopular with farmers.

These two theories aren't just interesting from an academic perspective; establishing which theory best describes human behaviour can help us understand why some animals receive conservation funding and media attention, but others go extinct with barely a mention. If the first theory is correct, if we can draw people’s attention to neglected but attractive animals like the Talaud bear cuscus, then they should become popular. But there would be no hope for unattractive animals. If the second theory is correct, all is not lost for these unattractive animals. We could increase their popularity by identifying appealing stories about them.

We are going to investigate these two theories, thanks to funding from National Geographic. We will ask participants to choose between fictional animals drawn by the artist Rory McCann. As the animals are fictional, participants can have no prior experience of the species which may affect their decision-making, and we can be certain that any effects found are due to the appearance of the animals themselves, or due to the stories we tell participants about the fictional animals. Watch this page to find out more about the project as it progresses! 

Why are monkeys so popular?

An example of an imaginary animal drawn by Rory McCann

1. Smith RJ et al. (2012) Identifying Cinderella species: uncovering mammals with conservation flagship appeal. Conservation Letters 5:205–212. 

2. Jepson and Barua (2015) A theory of flagship species action. Conservation and Society 13:95–104.