My dissertation expands on my interest in social good by offering a solution to a dilemma faced by biodiversity conservation experts. That is, as Balmford and Cowling wrote in 2006 in Conservation Biology, “the realization that conservation is primarily not about biology but about people and the choices they make” (p. 692). The specific problem I examine is whether haptic imagery (e.g., imagining touching the plants and animals of our world) helps increase your emotional attachment to wildlife. This problem comes from an issue at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. One group, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, allows swimming with manatees because it may bolster environmental commitment for the manatee. Another group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, is concerned that this practice is harmful to the manatee. My dissertation helps resolve this tension by providing both sides with a safe alternative that helps them achieve their mutual goal, protecting wildlife from human touch while encouraging environmental protection.
To answer this question, I pull from research in sensory marketing, in the form of haptic imagery, to operationalize this dilemma in a digital context. I designed experiments to examine whether a short video encouraging imagined touch (i.e., haptic imagery) can improve environmental protection efforts, such as Facebook engagement, of a consumer for a specific environmental cause. I demonstrate that haptic imagery enhances consumer engagement in environmental protection efforts by increasing their emotional attachment to the specific flora or fauna they imagine touching. I use contingent valuation to quantify haptic imagery’s impact on an individual’s willingness to pay for an environmental benefit, such as a fine to protect the animal. Furthermore, I utilize facial expression analysis to provide anecdotal evidence of the effect of haptic imagery and develop an immersive virtual environment to simulate a near-real life scenario where consumers can imagine touching the animal.