‘Majestic animals become props in a story’
Cecil the lion was accustomed to being photographed by tourists; he wore a tracker. He was 13 years old, and lived in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. On the night of 1 July 2015, an American dentist called Walter Palmer shot Cecil with a crossbow, wounding him. Palmer then tracked Cecil and, the following morning, killed him with a bow and arrow. Cecil was skinned and beheaded.
Palmer had a permit and was not charged with any crime. But the photos he posted, smiling broadly alongside a professional hunter and the dead lion, sparked international outrage. These indelible and disturbing images got me thinking seriously about the psychology behind this activity. ‘Trophy hunting’ – paying large sums of money and travelling across the world to kill certain species, particularly the Big Five of lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard, and then displaying the dead carcass in images with the smiling hunter and the means of killing – evokes strong and very powerful emotions. Those who oppose trophy hunting see it as cold-blooded, premeditated murder of majestic animals, with devastating implications for the conservation of certain rare species. Those who support it view it as an ‘accomplishment’ of the highest order, the ultimate test of human skill and endurance in a ‘battle’ with nature, a part of the evolutionary cycle, with positive implications for conservation (they argue, extremely contentiously – see Jones, 2019), in terms of the fees ‘trickling down’ into the local economies to support such work.
A core issue for both these positions is what might be called ‘the psychology of trophy hunting’ – why do men, and women, want to do this in the first place?
Getting the whole picture
Trophy hunters talk of the ‘naturalness’ of hunting, fixed in time and place by certain evolutionary constraints. In the words of Nils Peterson (2004, p.311) ‘According to this concept, humans are predators and hunting is the only way for them to enter nature as a participant rather than a spectator’. This forms the basis for their ethical justifications, alongside arguments about conservation.
But the motivations behind trophy hunting seem critical to most ethical judgments. Killing an animal like Cecil in order to acquire a trophy, rather than to provide a source of food or as a defensive act, would surely lead to more severe censure. Critics of trophy hunting argue that hunting is immoral not just because it requires intentionally inflicting harm on innocent creatures, but also because of what it tells us about the individuals involved.
So what does the evidence tell us about the psychology of trophy hunting? Here we need to consider many aspects of human behaviour, from a range of different perspectives – anthropological studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies (and evolutionary theory), nonverbal communication in the display of harvested prey (and semiotics), the language of trophy hunters in interviews, blogs and posts (and discourse analysis), and, of course, basic personality theory (after all, trophy hunting as an activity is clearly not for everyone). My book Trophy Hunting: A Psychological Perspective clearly had to have a certain theoretical breadth.
I began with the evolutionary perspective because of its centrality to the arguments used by proponents of trophy hunting. Hawkes (1993) evokes ‘costly-signalling theory’ to argue that animals use conspicuous display as a form of communication that signals inclusiveness fitness (the ability of an individual organism to pass on its genes to the next generation). Such displays thereby make the animal more successful in mating and the propagation of their genes. But these displays must come at a cost – they need to take a considerable amount of ‘effort, risk, economic resources and time’ to work.
In the case of large-game hunting, it is argued that members of the group are attracted by the display of the kill because they gain, not just from the meat, but information from and about the hunters and the hunt itself. The audience then use this information ‘to their own advantage in the numerous decisions of social life’ (Hawkes & Bird, 2002, p.61). In the book I consider what physical risks are actually involved in trophy hunting, or whether it operates primarily as a signal of financial resource (both, interestingly, covered by ‘costly-signalling theory’).
Female trophy hunters are ‘seemingly puzzling’ (Darimont et al., 2017) from this traditional evolutionary perspective, ‘given that women in hunter-gatherer societies overwhelmingly target small, predictable prey compared with men’. Consider, for example, Kendall Jones – student, cheerleader, hunter. She is a celebrity to her thousands of fans and followers on Facebook, lauded on the ‘First for Hunters’ website as ‘a seasoned hunter that has been lucky enough to travel to Africa to hunt the big five; work alongside organizations to provide meat to local communities and help treat wounded animals’.
The text accompanies a beaming Kendall sitting just behind a large lion that she has killed, her crossbow resting against the dead animal. The interviewer is keen to note that Kendall ‘works with organisations to help treat wounded animals’, perhaps using an explicit ‘feminine’ characteristic to counterbalance the implicit ‘masculine’ characteristic of wishing to subjugate and kill large prey. In the book, I bring in examples of this constructive process from other domains, to show how this process can operate more generally.
Behind the smile
To understand the psychology behind the killing, the majority of research starts with the language of trophy hunters in interviews and blogs, seeking to uncover deep-seated motivations and ‘satisfactions’. Using a very basic bottom-up approach to the analysis, which I critique in the book, they conclude that ‘achievement’ is the primary motivation – feelings of satisfaction related to performance (see, for example, Ebeling-Schuld & Darimont, 2017).
Other researchers have analysed instead the nonverbal communication of the hunters posing with their ‘harvested’ prey (a core term used by hunters, undoubtedly due to its more positive connotations when compared to ‘killing’). Child and Darimont (2015), for example, concentrated on two types of smile: the ‘Duchenne’, a genuine smile involving spontaneous eye and mouth muscle activation, and the ‘non-Duchenne’, a more conscious deliberative smile that lacks eye muscle activation. The researchers argue that Duchenne smiles ‘provide an honest, involuntary indication of pleasure’, and in their analysis of 5972 images of adult male hunters they found that Duchenne smiles were significantly more likely when hunters were photographed with prey than without prey, and more likely when the hunters posed with large compared with small prey. Older hunters showed more Duchenne smiles than younger hunters. The authors considered that this constitutes ‘independent evidence that displaying prey evoked satisfaction in some achievement contexts… [and that this] has not decreased with age’ (p.9).
But one can question the theoretical assumptions underpinning the analysis and interpretation of these results. Firstly, photographs are not unbiased snapshots of behaviour. They are carefully selected and posed images recorded for the appreciation of an intended audience. Most people can generate what looks like a Duchenne smile for the camera, but such non-genuine smiles appear on the face and fade very quickly, so video footage would be helpful here. Secondly, I argue, the hunters want to communicate something about the ‘lived’ experience of hunting. Let’s consider this in more detail.
As Halla Beloff (1985, p.16) says in her book Camera Culture – ‘Words can describe the world. The camera has the power to authenticate.’ Hunters are authenticating their experiences in these images of the culmination of the hunt. ‘Natural, spontaneous’ smiles (carefully selected if necessary) are required in this process of authentication of the joys of hunting and killing, the natural end point of the hunt, and to communicate something about the hunters themselves. The ‘Duchenne’ smiles of the hunter with the large prey at their feet send powerful, immediate and readily-interpretable cultural signals about authority, dominance, financial resource and entitlement.
Much everyday nonverbal communication is hyper-ritualised in this way, exaggerated and stylised so that we can process the visual image without much conscious reflection. The smiles of the trophy hunters effectively lay down a version of the events, an account of what the hunt was all about – bravery, the professionalism of a clean kill (the wounds not exposed), the lack of negative emotion, or any moral uncertainty.
This version of events isn’t just for viewers online, it’s for the hunter themselves at a later time. Images change our memory for events. We have known this since the classic research of Sir Frederic Bartlett at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s on the constructive nature of human memory. He also argued that the visual image ‘has the general effect of setting up an attitude of confidence which has nothing to do with objective accuracy’ (Bartlett, 1932, p.61). Photographs are particularly important in the stories we tell because
they are arranged, they conceal and distort. Our ‘confident’ memory of the event changes as we add thoughts, feelings and details to the image. The praise received for images amongst the trophy hunting community is for a particular version of the events that have unfolded.
A lethal combination
So what sort of person might be attracted to trophy hunting in the first place? In a 2015 piece for The Conversation, criminology lecturer Xanthe Mallett suggested a close link between a number of ‘socially aversive’ personality dimensions (namely the ‘Dark Triad’) and the hurting of animals, which, one must say, is a necessary part of trophy hunting. Phillip Kavanagh and colleagues (2013) point out that ‘animal cruelty’ is a ‘red ﬂag’ indicator for the propensity to engage in violent antisocial behaviours. Their analysis revealed that less positive attitudes towards animals were associated with higher levels of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. In addition, a composite ‘Dark Triad’ score was also correlated with attitudes to animals. The researchers also found that higher levels of psychopathy were associated with actual behavioural (and not just attitudinal) measures i.e. ‘having intentionally killed a stray or wild animal for no good reason’ and ‘having intentionally hurt or tortured an animal for the purpose of teasing it or causing pain’.
Importantly, the Kavanagh study did not focus on trophy hunting, but you can see that there is likely to be a close link between these personality dimensions and trophy hunting, given that trophy hunting necessarily involves animal suffering and therefore animal cruelty. A lack of empathy and a degree of callousness may well facilitate trophy hunting and may even be necessary personality traits for pursuing it. Trophy hunting and its depiction in photographs and films may well facilitate the maintenance of narcissistic flow (another necessary condition). This combination of personality characteristics may be lethal – and certainly is for the hunted animals.
This research on the semiotics of trophy hunting and the underlying personality characteristics of trophy hunters is clearly a move away from the evolutionary perspective. Perhaps now we’re getting somewhere in
our understanding of the psychology of trophy hunting… and even why it continues to flourish in this narcissistic age of ours.
The beginning of a hunt
If psychology has shown us anything over the past few years, it is that many of our behaviours have unconscious and hidden origins. In the book, I look outside trophy hunting to climate change and prejudice for two examples, to warn about the dangers of accepting explanations of personal behaviours too readily. I consider trophy hunting images, and how certain majestic animal species have become props in a story about the individual hunter and his or her great achievements, important values and significant financial resources. And, ultimately, I suggest that psychology may hold the key to combatting trophy hunting (if that becomes the goal). Sometimes, awareness may be enough to promote a degree of change. But, of course, change also depends on other factors that may hold a behaviour in place. And the hunt for these other factors – to identify, analyse and deconstruct them, at multiple levels – has only really just begun.
Geoff Beattie is Professor Psychology at Edge Hill University. Trophy Hunting: A Psychological Perspective is published by Routledge; £24.99
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