Humans Love Rare Things; Albinos Safe, Endangered Species Screwed


Two new experiments from French scientists show that humans love rare things. Not rarities, as in oddities, as in albinos. But rare things as in: not many of them left. That is bad news for many animals and conservation efforts.

Hypothesis: Humans love rare things. Even if they are not really rare.

Experiment 1 (online last year in Nature Precedings):

A team of French scientists and social went into Parisian luxury hotels that were hosting upper class events and asked 316 people if they would prefer eggs (caviar) from a 'rare species' of sturgeon or a 'common species' of sturgeon, or if they had no preference.
Before tasting it, 57% of the French yuppies (Fruppies?) said they would prefer the rare one while the remainder of customers did not express a preference. After the taste test, 70% said they preferred the rare species.

But here's the kicker. Both samples were actually caviar from a sturgeon farm. The eggs were the same. The heightened desire to consume one over the other was coming simply from the fact that one of the eggs was labeled as 'rare'.

But what about 'average' consumers? The scientists also went into three big suburban supermarches and talked to 308 shoppers there. Before tasting it, 52% of consumers said they would prefer the rare one while, again, the remainder of customers did not express a preference. After the taste test, 74% of supermarket customers preferred the rare species.

The authors demonstrate that consumers preference food they perceive as rare (even if both samples taste the same). Customers tasting two caviar samples more often preferred the one they thought was rare even though both samples were identical.

Gault, A., Y. Meinard, & F. Courchamp. 2008. Less is more: rarity trumps quality in luxury markets. Nature Precedings.

Experiment 2 (published today in PLoS ONE):

French scientists set up a website where visitors were told they could view one of two slideshows of images: either one containing images of "rare species" or one containing images of "common species." No other information about the featured species was provided. When visitors downloaded a slideshow, a progress bar appeared, showing what percentage of the slideshow had been downloaded. The bar filled up after six minutes but the file still appeared to be downloading and did not open. Visitors could cancel the download at any time and were taken to an error page, which would then link them back to the slideshow download page to try again (although the slideshows never opened).

The researchers measured: a) how attractive the rare slideshow was to the visitors (based on the proportion of visitors who downloaded the rare slideshow as their first or only choice), b) how long visitors were prepared to wait to download each slideshow and c) how perseverant visitors were (how many times they tried to download each slideshow before giving up).

Even though visitors knew nothing about which species each slideshow contained, more people opted to view the rare species slideshow. Visitors also waited longer for the rare species slideshow to download before giving up than they did for the common species slideshow and after the download failed, they made more attempts to download the rare species slideshow than the common one, showing that people are more attracted to species labeled "rare" than those labeled "common" even when they do not know which species are involved.

Overall results: In the U.S., per capita demand for seafood has increased in recent years and is up from 6.9 kg per person in 2000 to 7.4 kg in 2007. Many of the species considered least sustainable by conservation groups (e.g., shrimp, tuna, and salmon) remain the most desirable. If rarity was valued more than intrinsic quality for caviar, why would we expect most consumers of shark fin soup, bluefin tuna, or even cod to behave any differently?

More like this

Hey Jennifer - I see you did some remodeling around the house: it looks brand new!

You should put this on with a BPR3 icon, methinks.... ;-)

Pretty scary results. So how can we make people feel guilty or ashamed to eat/prefer rare species?

You're brave enough to critique eco-zombies burning up tons of carbon AFTER video-conferencing is invented?

Good Luck. That's pretty damn real. Actually it's about as real as we need to get.

Reminds me of Penn & Teller's Bottled water episode.

By John Morales (not verified) on 22 Apr 2009 #permalink

Hi Jennifer, welcome to SB. If your first two posts are indicative of your talent, I look forward to a many an otherwise wasted hour reading you.

But your xml feed is broken. I'll limp along with just a bookmark for now, but would you mind getting that fixed? KTHXBAI. :)

People who eat caviar are, perhaps, more disposed than people who eat other kinds of seafood to value rarity. That tuna, shrimp and salmon are consumed with great regularity may also be a consequence of economic (rather than purely culinary or social) values. Lobster - among many other foods - has an interesting history: from animal feed to top-shelf entree... and yet it can be said that more lobsters were processed for meals (per capita and within a limited geographical area) when it was a common food than when it was perceived as rare. Price things up too much and they loose in some markets what they gain in others.

Things often make more sense to me when viewed through the lens of marketing. We have been conditioned to value the rare, even when it's not. How in the world DeBeers still sells diamonds amazes me, but that's people and advertising for you. I love the clever design of that second experiment, btw. I wonder if they carefully screened out subjects who still have dial-up.

That reminds me of a number of comedy shows where people were offered various types of bottled water (all coming from the parking lot of course) and the ridiculous statements that the actors were able to elicit from the patrons. Though many people have read "The Emperor's New Clothes", very few seem to understand what it is about.

@Susan: what surprises you about selling diamonds? They're pretty amazing things and chimps love their bling-bling.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 22 Apr 2009 #permalink

Reminds me of Penn & Teller's Bottled water episode.

Damn, you beat me to it. Has anyone done more research to see if people are simply trying to look more cultured or if their experience is genuinely affected by the belief that one sample is 'better' than the other? I'd be interested to see how much of it came down to the pose factor although I've no idea how you'd test this.

Sadly it is not surprising. Is there a good site for checking out what seafood is sustainable?

Also is your RSS feed working? Having problems adding this blog to my reader.

By piratebrido (not verified) on 23 Apr 2009 #permalink

The first experiment doesn't necessarily demonstrate human fondness for rarity, does it? Wouldn't the results have been similar if the diners were offered two differently priced (but in fact identical) items?

Also, isn't it possible that the reason the most desirable seafoods are the least sustainable (i.e., rarest--shrimp, tuna, and salmon) is precisely because they are the most desirable?

I eat shrimp, tuna, and salmon because they are absolutely delicious not because of a perceived rarity or a high price. I also make a kick ass grilled salmon, so that may also have something to do with it. If I knew how to make chicken or steak taste that good I would problably be buying that instead.

showing that people are more attracted to species labeled "rare" than those labeled "common" even when they do not know which species are involved.

I could have predicted that result for free. They spent money on this study?

Personally, I prefer halibut or cod. Just got tired of tuna.

French yuppies (Fruppies?)

Except for Parisian yuppies who are Puppies. :-)

By Quiet Desperation (not verified) on 23 Apr 2009 #permalink

Reminds me of Penn & Teller's Bottled water episode.

My favorite was the woman who said the water supposedly from a glacier tasted "glacial".

By Quiet Desperation (not verified) on 23 Apr 2009 #permalink

@MadScientist: what surprises you about selling diamonds?

They're pretty, but they're also very common. What amazes me is that the vendors manage to sell a product for hundreds of dollars that is worth about 25 cents (if based on rarity). Marketing! There have been several good documentaries made on how they pulled this off (touting their "rarity"), so that they still get away with it despite the facts being known even further amazes me.

Hi Jessica,
Nice post :-)
another pub if you liked these first two:
Elena Angulo, Franck Courchamp. 2009. Rare species are valued big time. PLoS One. 4(4): e5215. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005215

Keep up the good job!