In this issue

Conservation Psychology: Using Psychological Tools to Address Environmental Challenges

Invited address at the APA 2011 Conference in Washington, DC

By Susan D. Clayton, PhD

What is conservation psychology? According to one definition, it is the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with the goal of encouraging conservation of the natural world. A more interesting question might be why is conservation psychology. Although this may be a more sophisticated audience that understands the need, I still get the question, "What does psychology have to do with environmental challenges?"

A simple answer: Psychology is about human behavior; human behavior has caused the environmental problems we face but will also help us to cope with them. Psychology is about human attitudes; people have strong attitudes, both positive and negative, about the environment and environmental organizations. Psychology is about human health, and human health is powerfully affected by the health of the natural environment. Environmental threats pose both direct and indirect risks to our well-being. Finally, psychology concerns human relationships. Positive social relationships are often nurtured in natural environments, but environmental threats underlie some conflictual relationships as well. Environmental changes will affect our relationships; increased temperatures may increase aggression; limits on environmental resources will foster conflict; and perceived injustice in the distribution of environmental costs will lead to international tension. For all these reasons we need to recognize that environmental conditions are fundamental to psychological phenomena, and also that psychological conditions are fundamental to environmental phenomena.

Psychologists can contribute by investigating the human causes of environmental problems, exploring the human consequences of environmental changes, and encouraging healthy responses to environmental challenges.

A description of human causes must include consideration of population levels, which have increased exponentially in the last century. Human activities would not have the impact they do if there were not so many of us. Although population is not the only determinant of environmental impact, it is a strong one. Environmental impact has been defined as a function of population, affluence, and technology. It is important to recognize that the drive to reproduce does not mean population increases can't be checked. Population growth is affected by factors including gender roles, education levels, and attitudes. Consumption is the other key component of human impact – how much of our environmental resources we deplete by what we buy and how we use it. Consumption is also affected by affluence but also by attitudes and values. Ironically, there is evidence that a materialistic orientation, in which people focus on consumption as a source of self-worth, is associated with lower subjective well-being.

Human consequences include stress, depression, and anxiety associated with environmental threats; an increase in social injustice; and a potential impact on identity when valued places are degraded. Some people will be more vulnerable to threats, while others will be better able to cope, due to both personality factors and demographic variables. Worldwide, the poor are more likely to be affected by environmental problems than are those who are better off, simply by virtue of their physical location along with a lack of resources and political power.

Responses to environmental challenges will be mediated by perceptions of those challenges. Attitudes toward global warming, for example, are strikingly inconsistent with the scientific evidence. People's perceptions are obstructed by confusion, temporal discounting, and the selective use of information. Emotional defenses are also powerful: not only the denial that results from thinking about something frightening, but also a perceived lack of urgency if it is not frightening enough, and defensiveness when people feel that their lifestyle or worldview is being challenged.

Psychologists are well-versed in behavior modification techniques, and there is a wide range of research examining the effectiveness of things like prompts, incentives, feedback, goals, and norms in promoting more sustainable behavior. All of these can be effective in some contexts.

I want to focus today on a more abstract topic whose relevance to conservation may be less apparent, and that is identity. Identities affect our responses to issues: topics that are seen as self-relevant attract more attention and arouse more emotion. We also respond differently when we share an identity with those who are affected, rather than defining them as outsiders.

Identities satisfy basic psychological needs for autonomy, esteem, and connectedness, but they also create needs: we are motivated to defend our identities and maintain them as positive sources of self-esteem. They encourage us to cooperate with similar others (those with whom we share an identity), to try to be like them, and to take action on their behalf. In order to maintain positive identities, we act in ways that present us well to others, and sometimes this can include acting "green." Prius owners, for example, said that their top reason for buying the car was because "it makes a statement about me."

If we adopt something, it becomes part of our identity and we will work to preserve it. The "Adopt-a-Highway" program has used this with great effectiveness to get people to clean up their roadsides.

If we believe that people like ourselves act to protect the environment, we are more likely to do so, and the more like us they are the stronger the influence is. This was demonstrated in the often-cited study by Goldstein, Cialdini and Griskevicius (2008), who found that people staying in a hotel were most likely to reuse their towels when they believed others who had stayed in the same room had done so.

The natural environment can be particularly relevant to identity. Research shows that people have significant emotional experiences in nature, often with close others; they report favoring natural settings for contemplation; and nature serves to fulfill needs for esteem, connectedness, and autonomy. I developed the Environmental Identity (EID) scale to assess individual differences in the extent to which nature was important to people's identity. It has good reliability and has been found to predict environmental attitudes and behaviors in a variety of countries around the world.

I want to briefly describe several projects I'm involved with that in some way try to leverage the concept of identity to encourage pro-environmental behaviors and attitudes. The first explored the relationship among environmental identity, national identity, and environmental concern. Working with Ahmet Kilinc of Ahi Evran University, I surveyed over 800 Turkish citizens and found that national identity was associated with environmental concern and behavior, but the relationship was mediated by EID. This suggests that one possible way to encourage conservation is by linking it to national pride.

In a second project, I am working with Anu Veijalainen to see whether Finnish high school students will be more interested in conservation if they have been given the opportunity to name a new species. Our hope is that naming the species will encourage the students to form an emotional bond and have a feeling of personal ownership that will translate into greater concern.

A third project is being conducted with a consortium of U.S. zoos to see whether a sense of connection to the animals provides an opportunity to motivate conservation behavior among the visitors. We know from previous research that some zoogoers feel a sense of shared identity with the animals, that social groups can create this sense of identity, and that a perception of the animals as similar, as well as a high EID, are associated with support for conservation. Our goal is to facilitate a sense of connection prompted by the zoo experience, and use it to encourage pro-environmental behavior.

This work is rich in psychological theory, but has a practical orientation. Psychologists need to be involved in conservation efforts, because the behavioral causes of our environmental problems imply behavioral solutions, and because environmental problems have psychological impacts. This work is fundamental to the mission of the American Psychological Association: "to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives."