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Beautiful Photos of Nature Increase Engagement and Concern for Environment, Research Shows


The aesthetic value of nature images can build engagement with social media posts and encourage protection of wildlife, according to new Ross School of Business research.

Conservation organizations often take one of two approaches when trying to raise awareness — and money — on social media: either showing beautiful images of the natural world, or showing disturbing photos of how humans have mistreated wildlife and the environment.  

Michigan Ross Professor of Marketing Anocha Aribarg, one of the authors of the new paper, explained in an interview that some past research has shown the latter approach to be effective. For the new paper, Aribarg and her coauthors — Michigan Ross Associate Professor of Management and Organizations Julia Lee Cunningham, and Eunsoo Kim, a former Ross PhD student now at Nanyang Technology University — set out to examine the effectiveness of images showcasing nature’s beauty.

The researchers conducted a series of studies using Instagram images from a nonprofit environmental organization. They combined experimental and deep neural network modeling techniques to help explain the effectiveness of nature images.

Among their findings: 

  • The aesthetics of beautiful nature photos builds engagement with the images on social media. 
  • This aesthetic value also encourages a moral responsibility to protect nature and wildlife.
  • Feelings of awe and inspiration created by the images are the specific drivers of these effects.

The researchers also concluded that their studies provide support for the “biophilia hypothesis,” the idea that humans have an innate desire to connect with nature. 

“Aside from the fact that aesthetics can drive social media engagement, it also increases people’s moral standing with nature and wildlife. People care more,” Aribarg said. “When you see something beautiful, it elevates you. You experience something beyond yourself. You feel like you are connected to the world.”

On a practical level, the paper offers guidance to conservation organizations, Aribarg noted: “We confirmed that the technique that these nonprofit organizations use to engage their audience, or to increase moral concern, works,” she said. “Showing a beautiful picture makes sense. So maybe it's good to invest in that.”

The effect of beautiful photos on social media engagement could apply well beyond conservation groups to advertising more generally, Aribarg added:  “The aesthetic quality of images can definitely have an impact in other areas beyond just environmental organizations.”

In addition to the insights provided by the research results, Aribarg said that the paper demonstrates the value of taking an interdisciplinary and multi-method approach to research, combining big data, experiments, and mathematical modeling to gain stronger insights. 

“In my recent research, I've been trying to use a combination of methods from different disciplines,” she said. “I've seen more and more papers that take this approach, and I think it adds a lot of richness to your research.”

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