The Psychologists' Tree of Life: A Special Feature on Psychologists Working with Non-Human Animals. A Matter of Pride

    Research output: Contribution to specialist publicationArticle


    A matter of pride
    Why are lions and the groups they live in a good focus of research for a social psychologist?

    Hands up, who hasn’t been told to go to a conference to ‘network’ at some point in their academic career. Getting yourself connected into influential social networks can pay dividends both professionally and personally.

    In 2013 I took a leap, changed direction, and forged a research career as a social psychologist in lion conservation. Excited by an opportunity I’d been given in Zambia and Zimbabwe to do exactly that, I packed my bags. However, I was warned that there were obstacles to my acceptance amongst fellow lion conservationists. I had the wrong PhD. Mine was in psychology. Worse, it was in social psychology! I was urged to enrol for another PhD in wildlife conservation or something ‘biological’ to ingratiate myself into the influential network of movers and shakers within the lion conservation world. My social science background was irrelevant. How rude. How ironic.

    Thankfully, wildlife conservation now focuses on working with local communities to develop initiatives that ensure those who live with the risks of protecting a species also receive benefits from doing so. Having unfenced lions living as your neighbour is not on most people’s wish-lists. We’re developing educational and social programmes that enhance local communities’ access to employment and sustainable income revenues, reducing the need to depend on natural resources to forge a living. These include conservation education, where feasible solutions to mitigating conflict with lions are developed and implemented, without loss to people and an increasingly diminishing lion population.

    Here the application of psychology seems obvious. But what about the lions themselves? Well, lions live in groups. Social psychologists know a thing or two about groups.

    Social network analysis (SNA) has a long history within the social sciences. SNA defines a plethora of methods that share a basic premise: social connectedness with others matters. The more networked in you are, communicating with others, the better your access and influence over information. You can see why the social sciences have embraced SNA to explore relationships of communication and power across a variety of domains.

    Within the field of animal behaviour, researchers such as Jens Krause have realised the utility of SNA to examine social cohesion and hierarchies amongst non-human animals. If we think of groups as powerful social networks, and assume the players within them are not equal, this might hold the key to understanding how some animal societies function – which might prove crucial for their effective conservation.

    Lion prides describe adult females and their cubs. Males can take over a pride and hold tenure for two to three years (sometimes longer), but will eventually be overthrown by fitter males seeking the opportunity to breed and enjoy the benefits of group living including cooperation in nurturing young, hunting and territorial defence. A lion’s chance of success in the wild is improved by pride living. So, to protect lions, we should focus on pride structure and function to maximise their chances.

    Considering conservation
    Prides have tended to be taken for granted in the research literature. They exist. There has been little focus on how they exist, how they are sustained, and the roles of the lions within them. Andrew Sih and colleagues describe ‘keystone’ individuals in SNA; the ‘social glue’ of a group because of their tight connections with all others within the networks. In its simplest form: Individuals A and B might not be friends with each other, but they are connected through a relationship they both have with C. That makes C key to holding the group together.

    I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with lion prides and study their behaviour to examine their structure and function. Each pride has an adult female ‘keystone’ member who ‘glues’ the pride together. She holds the most social connections, is the best networked individual, and the most socially influential. She dictates the pride’s movements. Identifying and protecting these keystones is crucial if we are to maintain the integrity of wild prides. Removal of the keystone can lead to the break-up of the group if no other lion steps up to the plate. If we consider that key threats to lions include persecution and disease, keystones can be prime targets. Efforts to restore lions include the translocation of lions across areas, and the reintroduction of lions to the wild. These efforts must identify and understand the structure of prides to ensure crucial social networks are protected in that process.

    As psychologists know, social networks matter. Including psychology into wildlife conservation networks might prove key to protecting this diverse field.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages2
    Specialist publicationThe Psychologist magazine
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018


    • non-human animals
    • wildlife conservation
    • African lions
    • Social networks
    • Communication
    • Keystone
    • Behaviour

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Psychology(all)
    • Social Sciences(all)
    • Environmental Science(all)
    • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


    Dive into the research topics of 'The Psychologists' Tree of Life: A Special Feature on Psychologists Working with Non-Human Animals. A Matter of Pride'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this