Student Showcase: Christoph Klebl

Feature photo credit: Lars_Nissen

Name: Christoph Klebl

Affiliation: University of Melbourne (soon: University of Queensland)

Favourite animal: The aye-aye, a lemur native to Madagascar. It has an unusual appearance, but it is weirdly cute and needs our protection as it is endangered.



Twitter: @ChristophKlebl

What is the central topic or question of your PhD research?

In my PhD, I sought to understand why and when people morally care about other people, animals, or nature. We already know that mental capacities influence the degree to which people care about targets. I was interested in whether aesthetic judgments are an additional factor that influence people’s moral concern, and specifically the degree to which people attribute moral standing to targets (that is, whether they view them as mattering for their own sake). In a related line of work, I also investigated the psychological function of aesthetic judgments. I mainly worked together with my PhD advisors Prof. Brock Bastian and Dr. Katharine Greenaway and with Prof. Rhett Diessner.

What inspired you to pursue this topic?

Tarsiers – cute or creepy? Christoph asks, “How does an animal’s beauty influence how we treat it?” Photo credit: Nick Kulyakhtin 

I was very interested in moral philosophy since my undergraduate studies, especially in ideas relating to the moral standing of animals such as the philosophical views of Peter Singer and Tom Regan. Though I personally find utilitarianism very convincing (which puts mental capacities of people and animals at the centre of moral considerations), I knew that sentience is not the only factor that people take into consideration in their everyday moral judgments. I happened to get particularly interested in the role of aesthetics in morality because of the amazing academics I was surrounded by during my studies. I was fortunate to be mentored by Prof. Semir Zeki—who studies the neural correlates of beauty—with whom I was able to discuss the relationship between morality and beauty, who showed me the most beautiful paintings in London’s museums, and who introduced me to a group of philosophers, biologists, art historians, and mathematicians, all studying aesthetic judgments. I felt that social psychology should focus more on this important experience too. Luckily, at this time I got introduced to Prof. Rhett Diessner who is one of the few people who studies the social psychology of beauty. He is an incredibly lovely person and working with him sparked my interest in this topic even more.  

What are some key findings from your work?

Snapping Turtles are seen as ugly because their skin reminds us of diseased skin. Photo credit: vujicivana

We found that people attribute more moral standing to beautiful people, animals, landscapes, and even buildings compared to their ugly counterparts. Building on this, we showed that aesthetic judgments influence the degree to which people attribute moral standing to animals independently from other factors that have been demonstrated to affect moral standing such as animal’s mental capacities, dispositional harmfulness, similarity to humans, familiarity, and edibility. In another line of research, we found that ugliness judgments are uniquely associated with the disease-avoidance system, and as such, have the function to alert us to cues of pathogen presence. Based on this, we found that perceptions of purity (indicating the absence of pathogen presence) are the psychological mechanism through which people attribute more moral standing to beautiful (vs. ugly) targets.

In your recent paper, “Beauty of the Beast: Beauty as an important dimension in the moral standing of animals” you find that beauty influences the moral standing of animals independent of traits related to an animal’s perceived character (e.g., harmfulness), similarity to humans, familiarity, and edibility. When it comes to animals, what characteristics are regarded as particularly beautiful or ugly?

In my research, I did not examine what people find beautiful or ugly but to what degree people care about animals that are typically considered to be beautiful or ugly. Though I’m not aware of research that has looked at what characteristics are regarded as beautiful in animals, there are general features of entities that people typically find beautiful such as symmetry, prototypicality, and familiarity. As for the other side of the attractiveness spectrum, my work suggests that we find animals ugly that have characteristics that remind us of disease such as asymmetrical faces and bodies. As we are most sensitive to human disease (we mostly interact with other people), we find animals especially ugly that have features that remind us of human disease and ailments.

The bald ibis is seen as ugly because their features remind us of human hair loss. Photo credit: manfredrichter

For example, we find a bald ibis ugly because it reminds us of human hair loss; we find snapping turtles ugly because their skin reminds us of a diseased skin; we find aye-ayes ugly because they have bodily features that we associate with unusual appearance in people like big ears and long deformed fingers; and we find puss moths ugly because their heads look like an injured body.

If people were made aware of this seemingly superficial bias (i.e., preferring to help “beautiful” animals), might they be less motivated to act in this way or is this bias highly difficult to overcome?

Evidence suggests that this bias is persistent and difficult to overcome, but this does not mean we should be defeatist. As with many human biases, there is no quick fix but if people become aware of their biases, they can learn to act in a way that counteracts those implicit biases. After all, most people think it is wrong to treat people or animals differently because of their appearance. I hope that in future advocacy groups will focus more on our attractiveness bias. Advocacy groups focus much more on animal intelligence and their capacity to suffer—and rightly so—but we also need to be aware that people’s moral intuitions are influenced by other characteristics of animals, including their outer qualities.

How would you like to see your work applied or being used? Are there implications for animal advocacy?

The implications of these findings are that people are more inclined to protect beautiful animals than ugly animals. For example, while many people care about beautiful animals such as pandas, koalas, or penguins, most people care little about bat species. This is a major problem for animal conservation because there are many critically endangered animals that are ugly, but very important to ecosystems. There are different possible strategies to make people care about ugly animals. One is to use beautiful animals as flagship species and through them get donations that can be used to protect ugly animals. For example, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) uses beautiful animals such as polar bears and pandas as flagship species, but they use the donations to protect other animals too. Another strategy is to familiarize people with ugly animals and through this reduce their negative reactions to them. This strategy is more effortful but if successful it might be superior because all donations would go directly to the most disadvantaged animals. Different strategies are valid in their own way, and it is probably good that organizations use different strategies to reach the same goal—protecting ugly endangered animals.

Any advice for new doctoral students doing work in this area?

There are so many unanswered questions about the function of aesthetic judgments and their role in morality, and designing interventions to increase people’s moral concern for ugly animals is especially important. I hope there will be more doctoral students working in this area. I don’t have any particular advice but as it still is such a small subfield, make sure to say hi to me.

Key Papers by Christoph Klebl

Klebl, C., Greenaway, K. H., Rhee, J. J., & Bastian, B. (2021). Ugliness judgments alert us to cues of pathogen presence. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12(5), 617-628.

Klebl, C., Luo, Y., Tan, N. P.-J., Ern, J. T. P., & Bastian, B. (2021). Beauty of the beast: Beauty as an important dimension in the moral standing of animals. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 75, 101624.

Klebl, C., Luo, Y., & Bastian, B. (2021). Beyond aesthetic judgment: Beauty increases moral standing through perceptions of purity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Klebl, C., Rhee, J. J., Greenaway, K. H., Luo, Y., Bastian, B. (2021). Beauty goes down to the core: Attractiveness biases moral character attributions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior.

Klebl, C., Dziobek, I., Diessner, R. (2020). The role of elevation in moral judgment. Journal of Moral Education, 49(2), 158-176.

Authors: Rebecca Gregson & Jared Piazza

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