“Mean ocean syndrome” for some; new ocean advocacy for others

More than 500 people watched the clips and reported their reactions, and it turns out that violent Shark Week content, whether paired with a PSA or not, caused a fearful reaction in people. No matter what, sharks are scary—especially in high definition.

Watching a PSA didn’t mitigate people’s fearful reactions, and people continued to overestimate their own risk of being attacked by a shark, even when presented with the facts. We call this “mean ocean syndrome,” a variant of mean world syndrome: the idea that people who watch a lot of violent crime drama on television tend to overstate their likelihood of being a victim of a crime.

Likewise, television programming that depicts the ocean as a violent place will cause people to overestimate the danger to themselves when they go in the water.

But here’s what the PSAs did do.

For many viewers, especially younger women, the PSAs prompted an increased interest in shark conservation and an intent to do things like donate to a conservation organization or support legislation that protects sharks.

That’s major. It means that Shark Week has the opportunity to turn at least some of its viewers into ocean advocates. Given that some shark species are already headed toward extinction, Shark Week could end up being an unlikely savior for sharks—that is, if the Discovery Channel wants to use its vast reach to protect the creatures that have earned the network millions of dollars.

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