Academics identify “The Jaws Effect” in world-first UniSA study

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

It’s one of the most famous taglines in film history, immortalising sharks as ruthless predators. But beyond the horror generated by Spielberg’s Jaws series, a persistent fear of sharks remains, with consequences that extend into reality.

That fear prompted the recent South Australian Education Department’s ban on school-based sea activities for at least the remainder of the term, after a number of shark attacks at popular beaches in the state. And while safety is at the core of such decisions, we should be cautious of scaremongering, says UniSA shark expert Dr Brianna Le Busque.

“When we hear about shark “attacks”, it definitely puts people on edge, especially when interactions and sightings are sensationalised by the media,” Dr Le Busque says.

“As most people do not have personal interactions with sharks, most of what we know about sharks comes from what we see on TV or in movies. Movies such as Jaws, The Meg, or The Shallows depict sharks as purposely hunting and attacking humans, which not only creates excessive fear but strengthens any negative views people may already hold.

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Fear of sharks impacts conservation

“This is called the ‘The Jaws Effect’ – a known phenomenon where people are excessively and irrationally scared of sharks – today, nearly 50 years after the first Jaws movie, it still influences people’s perceptions of sharks, impacts conservation efforts, and affects policy decisions,” she says.

“That’s what we’ve seen with the current bans on sea-based water activities. And the problem is that it could have negative impacts on children’s ideas of water and beach safety.”

In a new UniSA world first study, Dr Le Busque shows how over-represented sharks are in the realm of ‘creature features’ – a subgenre of science fiction, horror, or action films where the creatures are the villain in the plot.

“Sharks are commonplace in ‘creature feature’ films – they overrepresented, being the most common animal in this film category. Further, of all films that depict sharks (in various genres) 96 per cent overtly portrayed shark-human interactions as threatening.”

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Pathway to a passion for shark conservation

When EducationDaily asked Dr Le Busque about her own motivation to study this maligned creature, she admits she “kind of fell into it”.

“My background is in psychology, where I specialise in conservation psychology – understanding relationships between people and environment/animals. My interest, in particular, is in fear and why fear can impact conservation.”

Sharks, she says, are a perfect case study for this – and it led to her unique PhD.

“Since then, I have become more and more interested in the complex relationship between sharks and people,” she says.

“Since completing my PhD, I have worked as a teacher for universities and also in industry research roles, which lead to me to my current role which is my dream academic job – getting to teach 50 per cent of my time and research the other 50 per cent – in the area of human dimensions of wildlife.

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One aspect of her work she loves, Dr le Busque says, is that “no two days are the same working at a university”.

“Some days I spend most of my time in a classroom, teaching environmental science students, and other days I spend my time running statistics and writing up research papers. I also get to do a lot of media work (interviews on radios etc.), supervise research students, interview surfers, present at conferences and watch shark films.”

Oceanic sharks are at risk

In the past 50 years, oceanic sharks have declined by more than 70 per cent, with one in three species now threatened by extinction.

Dr Le Busque says while she believes the bans on school activities are currently unwarranted, she welcomes the early deployment of aerial shark patrols as a protective measure.

“Earlier shark monitoring is a good move to protect beachgoers, but we need a balance between people’s safety and access to the ocean,” Dr Le Busque says.

“No one wants a shark attack to occur, but these bans are just creating the same fear as generated on the ill-fated Amity Island in Jaws. It’s just not the right way to go.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]