Do you feel like tracking down and killing an elephant? Probably not, but some like the idea.
Recently the world largest trophy hunting convention took place in Las Vegas, organized by Safari Club International, an influential US-based hunting lobby. Participants took part in an auction on a trip to hunt and shoot polar bears, with some of the funds raised going to fight plans by the UK government to ban hunting trophies.
The proposed new laws will be part of the the toughest in the worldbanning imports of dead animal trophies not only of the most sought-after “big five” hunted animals – lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffaloes – but also about 7,000 other endangered and threatened species.
Trophy hunters pay large sums of money, often tens of thousands of dollars, to travel the world and kill wild animals. Who can forget the murder of Cecil the lion in 2015 in Zimbabwe? He was hunted for many hours with a bow and arrow, before being flayed and beheaded by a dentist and hired trophy hunter from Minnesota.
Many of us feel genuine bewilderment as to why men (and some women) have the desire to kill like this. Can psychology help shed light on what lies behind the motivation to hunt?
Maybe it’s a matter of accomplishment
Hunters themselves claim that hunting large prey is an integral part of our evolutionary past – that it’s part of our human DNA.
But anthropological research suggests that hunting large prey provides too much food at any one time, which does not necessarily lead to future benefits.
A study suggests a different evolutionary explanation called the “expensive signaling theory” – dead prey was an easily visible display of skill and courage and therefore increased the fitness state and sexual advantage of members of the ancestral hunting party (much like the feathers of a peacock).
Could trophy hunting be the modern equivalent?
To better understand the psychological motivations of trophy hunters, researchers analyzed 455 hunting accounts online hunting forums, selecting 2,864 individual phrases from these stories to identify why hunters feel satisfied after their catches.
They found ‘achievement’ to be the most frequently reported, followed by ‘appreciation’ of animals (including ‘love’ of the animals they kill) and ‘affiliation’, the feeling of belonging to a community of hunters and the resulting reinforcement. of social ties.
Another study analyzed the non-verbal communication hunters, especially the type of smile hunters in social media posts where they posed with their dead prey. They found that “true pleasure” smiles were significantly more likely when hunters were photographed with carnivores rather than herbivores and when the prey was large rather than small. The authors concluded that this research highlights the importance of the notion of inner accomplishment in trophy hunting.
But this may be too limited a conclusion.
These smiles are more than just natural signs of pleasure. These are exaggerated social displays for social media posts and part of an image involving both the hunter and the hunted – a display of power, dominance and control. Just as the “expensive signage” theory suggests, the animal is just a prop in a story about hunters so they can signal their status and fitness in a photo, which is a memory reconstruction of the hunt itself.
The Dark Triad
And this is where psychology can begin to shed some light on what motivates people to hunt.
It has been suggested that narcissism, Machiavellianism and (non-clinical) psychopathy are all involved, the so-called “dark triad” of personality characteristics.
Narcissists have a inflated sense of self and seek positive attention. To maintain this inflated level of self-esteem, they must engage in strategies to maintain and grow their self-image, such as posing with a lion they have just killed. Machiavellians often manipulate social situations for their own ends, much like the carefully managed images of social media, while psychopaths are generally callous and lack empathy – they does not experience the same level of emotion in the face of the suffering of others, whether human or animal. Thus, animals can be used as props to maintain their image of superiority without guilt or conscience.
Read more: Trophy hunting – can it really be justified by ‘conservation benefits’?
In a study of the link between dark triad traits and attitudes towards animals, researchers have found that animal cruelty is an indicator of violent antisocial behavior. They also found that less positive attitudes toward animals were associated with higher levels of all three traits and that higher levels of psychopathy were associated with actual behavior, for example, “intentionally killing a stray or wild animal without good reason” and “intentionally hurting or torturing an animal for the purpose of teasing it or causing it pain”.
This research was not conducted with trophy hunters themselves, and whether these findings apply to them depends on how you view trophy hunting. If you assume this requires a less positive attitude towards animals and is a sanctioned act of animal cruelty, then these results may well be relevant. It seems likely that a lack of empathy and a degree of insensitivity would facilitate trophy hunting, and the images would help maintain a narcissistic flow for these people.
I believe that psychology may well hold the key to understand trophy hunting and why it flourishes in our narcissistic age. Understanding hunter motivation is important, not least because it can lead to improved wildlife management policies and practices and can ultimately tell us what can be done to combat hunting. to the trophy.