Seaspiracy has struck a nerve. Since it was released on March 24, it’s shot up Netflix’s top ten, blown up on Twitter and sprung up in headlines across the world. The documentary, co-created by the people behind 2014’s Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, follows filmmaker Ali Tabrizi on his journey to highlight the grim reality of commercial fishing.
It claims (perhaps dubiously) that the bulk of plastic waste in the ocean comes from fishing nets, that over 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed every year as ‘bycatch’ and that business as usual will empty the oceans by 2048, making for a heavy watch that ends with a simple message: the single best thing you can do as an individual is to stop eating fish. The urgency is palpable.
Seaspiracy, like many documentaries before it, has triggered outrage, with some people publicly declaring that they will no longer eat fish. But do these documentaries actually make a lasting difference?
One thing that Seaspiracy has in droves is shock value. And shock can be very powerful in driving change. Ashley Bieniek-Tobasco, a researcher from the University of Illinois, surveyed people who watched Years of Living Dangerously, an American climate documentary series. She found that people who felt angry or shocked were more likely to say they were motivated to do something about climate change than people who experienced helplessness and sadness. Essentially, if you are too scared, you’ll bury your head in the sand. In the context of eating fish, emotions can make or break people’s desire to change.
Diogo Veríssimo, a behaviour change specialist at the University of Oxford, argues that while shock is very good at getting attention, it can backfire. “Repeated exposure to shock is unpleasant, so people develop strategies to avoid it,” he says.
When shock works, though, it’s incredibly effective. James Pearson, a 42-year-old landlord from Leeds, says watching Cowspiracy years ago convinced him to slash his meat consumption. Now, Seaspiracy has him hunting for fish alternatives. “Before watching these documentaries, I’d heard of the vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, but I just thought ‘I’m not eating birdseed, I’ll just be hungry and I like my meat,’ without really considering the consequences,” he says. “These documentaries are real eye-openers. It’s so important that everyone knows the impacts that our habits have on the planet.”
Seaspiracy’s barrage of animal cruelty and eye-watering statistics also resonated for Joseph Rojas, a 24-year-old security guard and podcaster from London. “Anyone with emotions will be touched by this documentary,” he says. “The way humans treat something so precious with such savagery is disturbing. I’ve never really liked fish, but [Seaspiracy] has given me a valid excuse to turn it down in the future.”
The makers of Seaspiracy didn’t hold back on weaving emotion into the narrative, and that may underpin its potential to spark shifts in attitude at scale. The same things that make a documentary compelling – tension, strong characters, conflict and a narrative goal – can pull the levers of behaviour change. “Seeing climate change impact someone that you can relate to helps people understand how climate change affects them,” Bieniek-Tobasco explains.
It is easy to draw parallels between Seaspiracy and its predecessor, Cowspiracy, which sparked abundant claims that watching it had made people ‘go vegan’. “[Cowspiracy] has triggered major behavioural change among young adults,” one article claimed. “I don’t personally know anyone who has walked away from this without becoming a vegetarian or questioning their eating habits, myself included,” says another.
But while there has been an increase in people pivoting to a plant-based diet in the last five years, we cannot attribute this change to Cowspiracy alone. There simply isn’t enough research to draw that conclusion, and most of the research is anecdotal.
Research does show that nature documentaries can influence concern for the environment, increase the number of online requests and media discussions, and encourage support for conservation. Crucially, however, the likelihood of concern translating to concrete behaviour change is poorly understood – and that’s a problem.
“We are missing a trick by not having systematic research into how documentaries could best be used to influence behaviour,” says Veríssimo. In an attempt to mitigate this, Veríssimo tested the ‘Blue Planet Effect’; the apparent phenomena of people using less plastic after watching the acclaimed David Attenborough documentary Blue Planet II.
Twitter users vowed never to use plastic again, The Marine Conservation Society saw a 169 per cent jump in website traffic and the UK government pledged £61.4 million to clear the oceans of plastic. The supermarket Waitrose reported that 60 per cent of customers who saw that episode of Blue Planet said they were more likely to choose a refillable water bottle and coffee cup than before. But the problem with self‐reported behaviour is that it doesn’t tend to correlate with actual observed behaviours. In other words, people lie. Especially when it comes to pro-environment behaviours.
In Veríssimo’s study, participants either watched the episode on plastic waste, or another from the series that focused on beautiful marine shots. They were offered snacks before and after the screening, that came in either plastic or paper packaging. The aim was to see if people would avoid single-use plastic after learning about the harms of plastic waste. They didn’t.
The researchers concluded that knowing that plastic waste is bad doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll go plastic-free. There’s a discrepancy between awareness and action. But why? “It’s a fact that people learn when they watch documentaries, but knowledge is just one small step in changing behaviour, especially for the long term,” says Veríssimo. “We like to think that we’re in complete control of our decisions but in reality, things are a little bit more complicated.”
One theory of behaviour change suggests that the decisions we make depend on our knowledge, feelings and social norms. “For example, we might be unhappy about a product’s impact on the environment but may stay quiet because our friends don’t share the same concern,” Veríssimo says. Crucially we also need to feel that our behaviour will make a difference. This last point is especially important for environmental behaviour, as it’s easy to feel powerless against the seemingly mammoth reality of the climate crisis.
Bieniek-Tobasco’s research supports the idea that hopelessness dissuades people from making environmentally-friendly changes. “We found that the imagery [in the series] generated a lot of strong emotional reactions. But at the end of the day, a lot of people still had limited efficacy beliefs.” They didn’t think they could make a difference, so they didn’t try.
Based on these findings, Bieniek-Tobasco argues that Seapsiracy’s call to action (stop eating fish), is too broad. “[The filmmakers] make the case for why you should stop eating seafood, but there aren’t recommendations about how to do it,” she says. This, she argues, alienates people who live in communities where fish is a main dietary staple, or who struggle to access alternatives.
While we have “little to no” evidence that documentaries can drive long-term behaviour change, Veríssimo is sure of Seaspiracy’s potential to drive conversation, and even enact policy change: “In 2018, Theresa May mentioned Blue Planet in parliament while discussing legislation on plastics,” he says. “Seaspiracy could do the same for commercial fishing.”
Can Seaspiracy shock people into not eating fish? It’s possible. It’s most likely to happen with people who are already thinking about it and will depend on whether it’s easy for them to change their habits, what their friends are saying, what they read online and whether they think it will make a difference. There are a lot of question marks, but as we push marine life, to the brink, it’s a good start.
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