Can Psychology Help Save the World?

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In thinking about how to address environmental challenges, many people overlook the relevance of psychology. But whether we focus on causes of the problems or on their consequences, people are relevant: human behavior, human attitudes, human well-being, and human interactions. The field of conservation psychology has arisen in an attempt to integrate and publicize the psychological theory and research that are relevant to understanding and promoting the connections between humans and the natural world.[1]

The goal of conservation psychology is not only to study the interdependence between humans and nature, but also to encourage a healthy and sustainable relationship. Conservation psychology includes contributions from all the subfields of psychology: e.g., clinical psychologists can explore the therapeutic effects of exposure to nature, in general and for troubled populations in particular; developmental psychologists look at the significance of early exposure to nature on the formation of an enduring environmental empathy and ethic; cognitive psychologists research the ways in which we perceive environmental changes and threats; physiological psychologists investigate the impact of environmental toxins on behavior and brain function; and social psychologists study the role of nature experiences within a social context, and ways in which social factors promote or inhibit pro-environmental behavior.

Human behavior—how we reproduce, consume, and utilize geographical territory—has contributed to global climate change, desertification, pollution, and the loss of biodiversity, and human behavior will have to help us mitigate and adapt to these problems. Thus the involvement of behavioral science is critical. Attitudes that are insufficiently invested in nature are often suggested to be the reason why people don’t engage in the kinds of sustainable behaviors that are needed. But it would be wrong as well as simplistic to infer that people don’t care about nature. Indeed, surveys show that people place a very high value on nature and often accord it moral and/or spiritual significance.[2] Conservation psychology can help to understand the complex sources of environmental attitudes and behavior.

Two facts about human behavior, simple but often unexamined, provide an important foundation for this project. One is that behavior is a function of multiple causes, many of which are irrational and/or outside conscious awareness. This means that people do not always know what’s good for them, and even when they do they may not act on it; logical argument about the importance of addressing environmental threats is not enough to affect behavior. A second is that behavior is susceptible to change. Patterns of behavior that may seem like inevitable consequences of “human nature” are nevertheless malleable, responding to both unintentional and intentional influence. Even something as fundamental as reproduction shows huge variability across social and historical contexts. An understanding of the core influences on behavior can allow for positive interventions to promote a healthy human-nature relationship.

As part of human behavior, we need to consider human perceptions. Reactions to environments and events will depend on how those environments and events are perceived and interpreted. Are they even noticed? People overlook a surprising amount of information, as has been dramatically demonstrated through studies showing, for example, that a large proportion of people can miss a gorilla or a unicyclist that is clearly within their field of vision. Peter Kahn has referred to “environmental generational amnesia” to describe the fact that people are frequently unaware of the extent of environmental damage and degradation that they witness.[3] Once something does attract our attention it is still screened through interpretive filters. The extent to which environmental problems, such as climate change, are perceived as a threat is determined by many factors beyond the information that is available.

In general, the impact of attitudes on behavior is overestimated. Much of a person’s typical daily behavior is performed mindlessly, according to habit, social norms, and/or immediate situational influences. Thus when looking for specific behavioral changes, it may be best to ignore attitudes entirely and focus on the other predictors. Studies have shown that energy use, for example, can be drastically reduced if energy conservation seems to be normative. In a recent experimental study, Nolan et al. were able to reduce energy use among California homeowners by providing information about the (lower) energy use of a typical homeowner.[4] The effect of this information was stronger than the effect of a message based on environmental protection or even self-interest. At an even more basic level, sustainable behaviors such as recycling are strongly affected by how easy they are to do. Reminders and feedback, and to a lesser extent incentives, also have a powerful impact on pro-environmental behavior.

In the long term, of course, we don’t just want to create small behavior changes. We want people to rethink and prioritize their relationship with nature. Thus it is important to understand the reasons for the apathetic or even hostile attitudes some people have toward environmental initiatives. Some of these reasons include fear and denial. People who anticipate environmental crises that they have no ability to prevent or forestall will, in many cases, just stop thinking about it. Another common response to fear is to respond by affirming the correctness of one’s own system, values, and lifestyle in a process of self-validation and system justification that can, paradoxically, lead to greater consumption of environmental resources. Thus, people need to be provided with positive means to manage their fears and affirm their identities, perhaps by being given ways to protect nature and steward their own valued places.

Another influence on environmental attitudes can be clearly seen in the political polarization of environmental issues in the U.S.: Republicans are far less likely than Democrats, for example, to believe the science behind climate change. Attitudes have implications for human interaction, and in this case environmental attitudes and behaviors can serve as a mark of group identification. Some people may express opposition to environmental initiatives not because they don’t care about the natural environment but because they do care about the political group with which they are associated and that group has come out against the initiative. (The same is true, of course, on the other side of the debate.) Similarly, pro-environmental behaviors such as taking the bus, or using a clothesline, have consequences for the social label that one receives that can be stigmatizing. So environmentalists have to try to avoid taking positions that line up too closely with existing social divisions, and emphasize, instead, the shared values that can be agreed upon by all of the groups involved.

Conservation psychology is not only concerned with the ways psychology can contribute to protecting the natural environment, but also with how attention to the natural environment can contribute to psychology. In particular, psychology has always had a goal of promoting research, and the applications of research, in order to enhance human welfare; to increase human welfare, we need to recognize how intimately connected it is to the natural environment. It is well known, for example, that environmental toxins can have direct impacts on human health. Less visible are the possible effects on mental functioning. A large body of research documents the detrimental effects of lead, mercury, and PCBs on cognitive functioning and sometimes social behavior. Environmental problems will ultimately have an indirect effect on the well-being of everyone on the planet: global warming and overcrowding affect social behavior and intergroup conflict; opportunities for interaction with animals and nature affect emotional well-being and stress reduction. Promoting human welfare while ignoring threats to the natural environment may be like putting on a raincoat as one’s ship goes down in a storm. When the World Commission of Economic Development report defined sustainability as a goal, they explicitly linked the two goals of environmental health and human development, including attention to human as well as environmental welfare.

At the core of psychology lies the person. Underlying the field of conservation psychology is the question of how individuals make a connection to the natural environment, how it becomes a fundamental part of who they are. Why does this matter? Issues that are relevant to our sense of self attract more attention, arouse more emotion, and connect to other aspects of our life more than issues that are less personally significant. They are also more likely to motivate attitude change and behavior. People make this connection to nature in a variety of ways, from the often minor ways in which aspects of the environment are used to represent a positive image of oneself—I have the most beautiful garden, I have bought an acre of the rainforest, I have adopted a stretch of highway—to the deeper connections represented by the love of some natural entity, be it a tree, a lake, or an animal.

Experiences with the natural environment shape our individual identities, telling us who we are as individuals and how we relate to other aspects of the natural world. This has implications for our individual actions, our perceived moral obligations toward nature. Am I a steward of nature? A child of Mother Earth? Or simply a consumer of natural resources? Identities describe roles or relationships toward others, and roles and relationships define responsibilities.

Also, we need to recognize that although the prototypical “experience” of nature is solitary, the connection to nature is part of who we are as social beings. Individual experiences with nature are highly structured by public policies that enable or restrict such experiences—are there parks nearby, or not? What are the local programs I can get involved in? Do I feel a strong sense of community identity, in which case I’m more likely to care about preserving the local community? Social influences structure our interpretation of nature. The Grand Canyon was originally considered a horribly desolate wilderness, but now we all “know” that it is beautiful. Empty lots in a community can similarly be considered either oases or wasted space.

Recognizing the interdependence of social and environmental ties suggests that we should encourage social policies and institutions that include interactions with the natural world as a fundamental part of a society. Such institutions would include both formal and informal educational environments, conservation organizations, urban and non-urban parks, and any other mechanisms that present people with environmental knowledge and experiences. These experiences, which develop a relationship with nature within a social context that directs and supports the relationship, may be predictive of attitudes, behavior, and even fundamental beliefs about fairness with regard to environmental issues. Thus, while the natural environment provides psychology with a deeper understanding of human nature, psychologists should provide educators, environmental policy-makers, and conservationists with the information to support their work in sustaining the human experience of nature.

[1]. See S. Clayton and A. Brook, “Can Psychology Help Save the World? A Model for Conservation Psychology,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 5, no. 1 (2005): 87-102; S. Clayton and G. Myers, Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 2009); and C. Saunders, “The Emerging Field of Conservation Psychology,” Human Ecology Review 10 (2003): 137-49.

[2]. W. Kempton, J. Boster, and J. Hartley, Environmental Values in American Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).

[3]. P.H. Kahn, Jr., The Human Relationship with Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

[4]. J. Nolan, P.W. Schultz, R. Cialdini, N. Goldstein, and V. Griskevicius, “Normative Social Influence Is Undetected,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34 (2008): 913-23.

  • Susan Clayton

    Susan Clayton is Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology and chair of Environmental Studies at the College of Wooster. Her PhD, in social psychology, is from Yale University. She co-authored the American Psychological Association (APA) reports on “Psychology and Global Climate Change” and “Psychological Impacts of Climate Change.

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