If you want to motivate people to protect nature, start by talking to a psychologist.
This isn’t because you’re crazy—but because you’re human.
It turns out that understanding how humans think can be a huge advantage for convincing them to support conservation.
I’m Totally Rational
Most of us think we’re perfectly rational. In fact, much of the time we’re not rational at all.
Behavioral psychologists and social scientists have long known that our choices are swayed by sweeping tides of unconscious influences.
One example is loss aversion: people place a greater value on avoiding a loss than on making a gain—even if there’s no difference in the overall outcome.
For instance, if you want your employees to work harder, it turns out it’s much more effective to tell them they’ll lose money for failing to meet a target than giving them a bonus for reaching it.
In a conservation context, loss aversion could help the public be supportive of new nature reserves. A new marine park sounds like a great idea if people understand it will help maintain existing fish stocks in a region, preventing long-term losses from overfishing of key breeding sites—and thereby taking advantage of their natural loss aversion.
Another psychological strategy is nudging. The decisions people make can be strongly influenced by how information is provided to them, and by using positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions.
For example, most people are quite happy to see their body organs donated to others after they die, to help save lives. A single donor might save a half-dozen lives this way—and the life that gets saved by such a policy might even be your own.
If you make organ donation a voluntary option when people apply for their driver’s license, few will choose it. But make it the default option and most people are fine with the idea and don’t opt out.
Nudging for nature is a developing art but researchers and policy makers are beginning to explore it, as has great potential to encourage better decisions.
Bag of Tricks
Yet other peculiarities of how our minds work—so-called cognitive biases—could provide big benefits for nature conservation, but have barely been explored.
The status quo bias describes our strong emotional attraction to the current state of affairs—the status quo. It’s especially common in complex situations where there is considerable uncertainty—such as many real-world scenarios. “When in doubt, stick it out” seems to be the motto.
So, for conservationists, explaining how a new development project will change peoples’ lives in diverse and unexpected ways may be effective. Many people don’t realize, for example, the diverse economic and social risks involved in many big development projects—and when they do, they are less likely to support them.
Anchoring bias is another mental oddity: our tendency to rely heavily on the initial information we receive—and less on subsequent information, even if it’s more reliable.
So, conservationists should be active and gregarious in their outreach efforts—reaching out to a diversity of different audiences and to children, for instance. There’s little sense in preaching to those already converted to nature conservation, even if it’s far easier to do so.
At ALERT, for instance, we use many strategies to reach political conservatives and those in fields such as finance, economics, agriculture, industry, and engineering—audiences that traditionally have mixed views about conservation priorities. Sure, this invites criticism from some quarters, but it’s better than being unheard.
It’s clear that conservationists have a great deal to learn from psychology. For example, so many people get overwhelmed by bad news about the environment. How do we get our messages about conservation issues out to the general public without turning them off?
How do we combat disinformation and claims of ‘fake news’?
How do we get people to make smart decisions that are in our long-term interest when we’ve been programmed to think in the short term—about daily news cycles, quarterly profit statements, and bi-annual political elections?
This is almost all new terrain for humanity. As a species, we’ve never been challenged like this before, cognitively or otherwise.
There’s actually a field in academia called “Conservation Psychology”. It’s not well known or widely discussed.
But maybe it should be.