Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Tuesday at the Conservation Biology Conference: Conservation Tools and Tips from Psychology

This morning's seminar on Conservation Tools and Tips from Psychology, organized by Carol Saunders (Chicago Zoological Society) and Gene Myers (Western Washington University), had some interesting implications for private land conservation, and conservation in general.

First, Saunders presented some fascinating findings and guidelines from the emerging field of conservation psychology. Among other items, she repeated the results of a study that we reported in the "Editor's Picks" Section of the Conservation Value web site a couple of weeks ago: that behavior is very strongly affected by social norms - it is likely to mirror what other people are doing. People want to be a part of the group. Littering, she noted as an example, has been found by researchers such as Cialdini to be more likely when there is already litter on the ground. When there are people picking up litter, however, passersby are not very likely to litter.

Some sample psychology-based solutions that she proposed for conservation practitioners included:
1) It is important for managers and practitioners to highlight pro-environment social norms - instances where "everybody is doing it".
2) Highlight the positive and negative environmental impacts of decisions and choices. Provide information and prompts that help people understand the impacts of their choices and give them something to brag about when they do something good. Self fulfillment - the praise people receive for doing good - is a powerful psychological motive.
3) Break down identity conflicts, for example between "ranchers" and "environmentalists" by highlighting shared identity and concerns. This helps lower emotional barriers to solutions.
4) Create ways for pro-environment behaviors to make a positive statement about social values. For example, going solar, biodiesel, or buying a hybrid vehicle, and getting praised for being both patriotic and practical by helping make America more energy independent.

Amara Brook of Santa Clara Collge presented a lecture titled "Psychology to Determine Whether (Conservation) Interventions are Working." She emphasized that it is important to understand and address why people are either against pro-environmental actions, or are literally carrying out environmentally-harmful actions.

Brook and colleagues conducted a study to evaluate landowner attitudes toward Endangered Species Act protection of the Preble's Jumping Mouse. They found that that a key reason for landowners not taking conservation actions is that while landowners consider themselves to be conservationists and stewards of the land, they resent environmentalists who lobby for protection while not themselves sacrificing to make the protection happen. So it is not necessarily the idea of protecting the mouse, itself, that irks them. It is being asked to be the ones to pay, as well as a control issue--the feeling of being forced to take action against their will, rather than as an equal partner sharing in the glory of the solution.

Brook's presentation showed why when it comes to private land conservation, collaboration and incentives/cost sharing are key--they address root causes of the mistrust and resentment that are often the motivating force behind anti-conservation behaviors.

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