Improving Human Perception of Rattlesnakes Through Relational and Instrumental Messaging

Rattlesnakes and Perception Gaps

Rattlesnakes (family Viperidae) comprise a group of venomous snakes known for their segmented tails, which produce a distinctive rattling sound as a warning to potential predators. As pit vipers, they have vertically elliptical pupils, infrared-sensing pits between their eyes, and teeth that can fold into a cavity in the roof of their mouths to prevent prey from escaping. Rattlesnakes play a vital role in the ecosystem as mesopredators, controlling rodent populations and thereby reducing zoonotic disease transmission risks and losses in plant and grain consumption.

However, rattlesnakes are widely disliked and persecuted due to cultural myths and deep-rooted fears. Public misconceptions of rattlesnakes as dangerous, ruthless killers hinder conservation initiatives and may contribute to population declines. People from some Abrahamic religions (i.e., Christianity, Judaism, Islam), identifying as female, or residing in the Midwest and in rural areas had relatively favorable perceptions of rattlesnakes. Overall, perceptions of rattlesnakes can be improved through targeted messaging strategies.

Testing Message Strategies

We deployed an online survey to assess people's baseline perception of rattlesnakes and then measured the change in perception after viewing either a relational or instrumental video message. The relational message strategy emphasized rattlesnakes as living organisms that experience motherhood, just like humans. In contrast, the instrumental message strategy highlighted the ecological services provided by rattlesnakes in the ecosystem. We examined the change in aggregate perception of rattlesnakes through an eight-item Rattlesnake Perception Test (RPT) evaluating emotional, knowledge, and behavioral responses on a five-point Likert scale.


Overall, both video messages improved perceptions of rattlesnakes, but the instrumental message led to a greater increase in aggregate perception (ARP) than the relational message. The relational message was associated with significant increases in ARP among females, agnostics, Baby Boomers, and Generation Z. The instrumental message was associated with significant increases in ARP, and this result varied by religious group. Changes in ARP were less for those reporting a prior experience with a venomous snake bite than for those with no such experience.


These results suggest that both relational and instrumental message strategies can improve people's perceptions of unpopular and potentially dangerous wildlife. But their effectiveness may vary by gender, age, religious beliefs, and experience. These data can be used to hone and personalize communication strategies to improve perceptions of unpopular wildlife species. Further research is needed to explore the application of these results to other disliked wildlife and to understand how perceptions change over time after the application of relational and instrumental messaging.

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