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Lecture/Discussion Topics Class Activities Multimedia Resources Suggested Readings for Students Refrences Cited in this Section


Lecture/Discussion Topics

Cognitive Biases/heuristics And Environmental Issues

Several cognitive biases and heuristics have application in understanding human thinking and behavior related to the environment. Some examples include:

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Risk Assessment And Environmental Hazards

Risk assessment is a cognitive psychology topic with obvious relevance to environmental issues (Slovic, 1993). Numerous studies have explored the public's perception of risks associated with environmental hazards such as nuclear waste (e. g., Drottz & Sjö berg, 1990; Flynn, Slovic, & Mertz, 1993; Peters & Slovic, 1996; Sjö berg & Drottz-Sjö berg, 2001) and toxic chemicals (e. g., Kraus, Malmfors, & Slovic, P., 1992; Mertz, Slovic, & Purchase, 1998). Researchers who study risk perception address a variety of questions including how to measure the accuracy of public perceptions of risk (especially when there may be disagreement among the experts about the " true" risk), how to effectively communicate known risks to the public, and how to influence people's behavior so as to manage risk. Rresearch on risk assessment has suggested that people's risk estimates are less than rational for a variety of reasons including the following (reviewed in Nickerson, 2003):

In a recent paper, Slovic, Finucane, Peters, and MacGregor (2004) argue against the view that " coldly rational" risk assessment is always superior to emotionally-informed risk assessment. For example, Alhakami and Slovic (1994) found that people's evaluation of the risks and benefits associated with the use of pesticides was based not only on knowledge but also how they felt affectively about those risks and benefits. Finucane, Alkahami, Slovic, and Johnson (2000) tested this " affect heuristic" in environmental risk assessment by presenting participants with one of four informational sets regarding the risks and benefits of nuclear power. They found that judgments of the risks and benefits of nuclear power were changed by information designed to increase favorable affect.

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Cross-Cultural Conceptualizations Of Nature

Scott Atran, Douglas Medin, and Norbert Ross (2005; see also Medin & Atran, 2004) report that mental models of nature vary cross-culturally and even show dramatic variation within populations, and that this variation has implications for environmental issues. In this Psychological Review article, the authors suggest,

Our research program provides a new theoretical perspective on resource dilemmas, particularly those involving multiple cultural groups. We argue that how people conceptualize nature is linked with how they act in relation to it. In addition, we believe that cultural differences in mental models and associated values play an important role in creating intergroup conflict and, therefore, may hold the key to addressing these conflicts. (p. 744)

Although this article is focused primarily on describing and advocating a research methodology for studying folk biological knowledge and its transmission and distribution within and between cultural groups, it also contains some specific research findings that may be of interest to students. The authors studied several populations in Mesoamerica and North America and found differences (e. g., between immigrants and native inhabitants of a region) in understanding of reciprocal relationships between plants, animals, and humans, and in how that understanding is socially tranmitted. They found that the richness and complexity of mental models varies with the extent to which a given population has a cultural history of dependence on a specific habitat, but that this long history does not guarantee that behaviors toward that habitat will be sustainable. The authors conclude that information about culturally shared (and not shared) ecological understanding is valuable because,

In the area of decision making and the commons, the prevailing view... has been that human behavior in society is driven by self-interest, mitigated by institutional constraints... Thus, analyses of the commons problem may appear to be trapped somewhere between isolated individual interests, which lead inevitably to commons destruction, and a focus on institutions that has little need for cognitive science... We find that content-structuring mental models are pertinent to environmental decision making. They not only predict behavioral tendencies and stated values but also correlate reliably with the measurable consequences of those behaviors and values. (p. 770)

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Implicit Associations And Connectedness To Nature

Schultz, Shriver, Tabanico, and Khazian (2004) use a modification of the Implicit Associations Test to measure individuals' connection to nature. The task measures participants’ response latency in making “ me-not me” judgments for words associated with the natural environment (e. g., trees) versus words associated with the built environment (e. g., car). Shorter response latency for me-nature pairings is interpreted as reflecting greater implicit association (i. e., connection) between the self and the natural world. Importantly, researchers have not found the IAT to be a good predictor of environmental behaviors.

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Cognitive Benefits Of Contact With Nature

Attention restoration theory (ART; Kaplan, 1995; 2001) describes two empirically-supported components of attention: involuntary attention (which is captured by interesting or important stimuli) and directed attention (which is under cognitive control). According to ART, directed attention is restored by time spent in natural settings because the inherently interesting stimuli that populate natural settings capture involuntary attention (modestly), allowing the cognitive mechanisms required for directed attention time to replenish. Natural settings differ from urban settings in that urban settings are filled with stimuli that capture involuntary attention dramatically (e. g., sirens, car horns) and require directed attention-based responding (e. g., avoiding traffic). Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan (2008) tested ART with two experiments that demonstrated improvements in directed attention (measured with a backward digit-span task) after participants walked in a natural setting (an arboretum) versus in an urban setting, and when participants viewed pictures of nature, as compared to pictures of urban settings. These researchers conclude that even, " simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control" (p. 1211).

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Belief In The Animal "Mind": Thinking About Animals Thinking

Animal cognition is a topic commonly addressed in psychology classes. To teach this topic within a sustainability framework, take the discussion beyond the question of whether and how animals think to the implications of humans believing (or not believing) that they do. Many authors have written about how humans are impacted by evidence of animal cognition and emotion, and about how scientists have long warned people against the dangers of "anthropomorphism" (e.g., Bekoff, 2002; Bekoff, Allen, & Berghardt, 2002; Crist, 1999; Daston & Mitman, 2005; Mitchell, Nicholas, & Miles, 1997). Ask students to consider how both our naive and scientifically-informed beliefs about thinking and emotions in other animals may affect our attitudes toward sustainabilty-related topics such as habitat loss, species depletion, and factory farming. How do beliefs about nonhuman animal cognition affect attitudes toward animal research? Knight, Vrij, Cherryman, and Nunkoosing (2004) found that belief in animal mind was a strong predictor of attitudes toward various types of animal use. (See also Mametti & Bortolotti, 2006 for a general discussion of belief in animal mind and its implications for attitudes toward animal research.) PBS's Scientific American Frontiers series has a episode that works well to introduce the idea of animal cognition (see below). The episode includes demonstrations of research paradigms that test various cognitive abilities in animals including counting, language, category formation, and perspective taking.

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Cognitive Maps Of Our Environments

Since the publication of urban planner Kevin Lynch's (1960) The Image of the City, planners and researchers have used cognitive maps to assess people's subjective perceptions of their environments (Kitchin, 1994). Lynch analyzed people's sketches of their cognitive maps for urban areas and found that they typically contain five features: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. In addition to these spatial cognition indicators, sketches of cognitive maps also contain information about individuals' feelings about the space. One way cognitive researchers have detected affective content in sketches of cognitive maps is by studying the errors and distortions in the maps. Individuals tend to overestimate the size of areas they especially like and omit areas they do not like (Milgram & Jodelet, 1976; Seibert & Anooshian, 1993). Although psychologists have not delved very deeply into the topic of affect and sketch map distortions, some geographers and planners find this information enlightening. Consider the following anecdote from Britain Scott:

An undergraduate geography student from Gustavus Adolphus College presented her research on the cognitive maps of residents of Grand Marais, MN at the 2000 National Conference of Undergraduate Research. Grand Marias is a small town on the North Shore of Lake Superior. In the past decade, property values in Grand Marais have skyrocketed with lakeshore property increasing from around $50 per linear foot to more than $1000 per linear foot in just a few years. The community has seen an influx of residents fleeing the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The social climate has become more politically liberal and more oriented towards arts culture than in the past. The student researcher asked both old-timers (defined as residents who had lived in Grand Marais for more than 25 years) and newcomers to sketch their cognitive maps of the area. Newcomers tended to include the art gallery, the coffee shop, and the community theatre while old-timers drew the post office, the hospital, and personally relevant locations (e.g., "where I shot a bear last year"). All residents included Lake Superior in their sketches.

Most research on cognitive maps has pertained to built environments, but some researchers have collected sketch maps from indigenous populations living subsistence lifestyles in more natural areas. These maps have been used to assess natural resources and inform future development projects (e.g., Herlihy, 2003; Smith, 2003).

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Illustrating Heuristics/Biases With Environmental Content

Anchoring and adjustment, the availability heuristic, the representativeness heuristic, conjunction fallacy, and framing are illustrated with environmentally related content on the handouts available in .pdf format here. Instructors can use two versions to illustrate what happens when the range of options on a multiple choice item is shifted. In Version 1, the correct answer always appears last out of five options; on Version 2 it is the third option. Following the multiple choice items are a few forced choice items that can illustrate the availability heuristic. The correct answer always appears second, but students will often choose the first option because examples come more easily to mind.

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Exploring How We Conceptualize "Nature"

Cognitive psychologists make a distinction between categories of naturally occuring objects and categories of artifacts created by humans, although to some extent the distinction between these types of categories is blurred. For example, some research suggests that features are more important in our categorization of natural objects while function is more important in our categorization of artifactual objects (e. g., a genetically-modified vegetable may be less likely than a nonmodified one to be categorized as a vegetable while a stationary bicycle may be less likely than a mobile one to be categorized as a bicycle) ; however, this primacy of function in artifact categories may not always hold true, depending upon which features of a category are perceived to be causal in giving rise to other features of the category (Medin, Lynch, & Solomon, 2000). Students can explore how we conceptualize nature by doing the following activities with a small sample of their peers:

  1. Ask the participant to list the first four examples that come to mind in response to the category labels " nature" and " not nature. " Record these.
  2. Present your participant with a set of index cards with the following words on them (one word per card) and ask him or her to sort the cards into piles labeled " nature, " " not nature, " and " not sure": houseplant, lawn, Grand Canyon, vegetable garden, flower garden, city park, state park, sports field, tree plantation, forest, corn field, Christmas tree, campground, dog, parakeet, snake, river, raccoon, zoo animal, pig, cow, apple, dandelion, genetically-modified vegetable, cross-country ski trail, hiking trail, swimming beach, snowmobile trail, fireplace, campfire, forest fire, tulip bulb, carrot, strawberry.
  3. After the participant has sorted the cards, ask him or her to put the cards in the nature pile in order from " most like nature" to " least like nature. "
  4. Then, ask him or her to go through the stack of cards labeled " not sure" and explain why he or she had trouble classifying these things. Take notes.
  5. Finally, ask the participant " What do you think are the features that define the category 'nature'? "
  6. Once you have collected responses from four or five individuals, use your data set to answer the following questions:

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Visual Images And Our Cognitions About Nature

This activity asks students to consider how and whether visual technology affects conceptualizations of nature in modern industrial cultures? For example, how do high-tech visuals such as satellite imagesof the Grand Canyon, time-lapse photographs of natural phenomena, or microscopic images of natural elements affect our understanding of nature, our place in it, and our impact on it? Have students visit these websites (see below for web addresses) and write a reaction to the following question: How might humans whose experience of nature is mediated by technologically-generated visual images understand and think about nature differently than those whose experience is limited to what they can detect with their own senses?

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Environmental Decisions: Making Hidden Costs Salient

Economic analysis of environmental issues has been criticized for not taking into account the real costs associated with certain behaviors. The challenge to economists is to figure out how to place a monetary value on things such as air quality and wildlife habitat when doing cost-benefit analyses that will inform environmental policy. Similarly, when individuals make environmental decisions, we often lack relevant information. We may not be aware of all of the costs or potential impacts of our behaviors and may instead rely on intuition, cognitive heuristics, and faulty mental models (Margolis, 1996). For example, when evaluating which food product is more environmentally friendly, we may know to consider the way it was produced (organically or not, small farm vs. factory farm) and the packaging, but we might not think about the energy and pollution involved in bringing the food to us from another geographical region. When we behave today, we may not be able to comprehend the long-term impact of that behavior. Cognitive researchers have demonstrated many ways that people engage in illogical or biased reasoning even when we have all of the necessary information. So, what are the implications making decisions in the absence of relevant information? Ask students to identify products used or consumed in their daily routines that have hidden environmental costs. For example, many students are aware of the issue of paper consumption and so they recycle and print double-sided so as to " save trees, " however they may be unaware of other environmental costs of paper production (e. g., those associated with the chemical bleaching process used to make the white paper that we consider standard). Have students identify three such products and research the full array of environmental costs associated with these products (see Brower & Leon, 1999, for good information on costs of many common products). Do students predict that providing detailed information on the environmental costs will affect peers' assessment of associated behaviors? Students can test their predictions by providing detailed information on costs to one sample of participants and no information to another sample and then present them with Likert-style items such as the following (adapted as necessary for particular products):

Students may also wish to include a manipulation check that assesses participants' awareness of costs associated with the products. After collecting the data, statistically trained students-- or the instructor-- can analyze responses to determine whether there is a significant difference between the responses of the informed and uninformed participants?

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Sketch Maps And Environmental Attitudes

As described above, some researchers consider the distortions in sketches of cognitive maps diagnostic of affect toward areas or elements in familiar environments. Students can explore this association by asking a sample of peer participants to first sketch their cognitive maps of campus and then to fill out a measure of environmental attitudes (e.g., Dunlap, Van Liere, Mertig, & Jones, 2000) or nature connectedness (e.g., Mayer & Frantz, 2004). Do the students see a correspondence between scores on the individual differences measures and patterns in the sketch maps? Students will have to determine for themselves exactly how they will assess the content in the sketch maps; will they look for inclusion or omission (e.g., of greenspaces vs. buildings) or distortions (e.g., exaggerating the size of greenspaces vs. buildings)? This activity can serve as a good experiential introduction to the topic of methodological problems associated with researchers' use of sketch maps (Kitchin, 1996).

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Website: Animal Studies Bibliography

Linda Kalof, Amy Fitzgerald, Jennifer Lerner, and Jessica Temeles have compiled (and continually update) a bibliography on animals studies that includes a section on "Animals as Reflexive Thinkers." The front page of the website is at

Film: Pbs Scientific American Frontiers- "Animal Einsteins" (1998)

This PBS series, hosted by Alan Alda, is an excellent resource for many topics in psychology and environmental studies. Episode 903: Animal Einsteins does a nice job of demonstrating how researchers must approach the study of animal cognition creatively and skeptically so as to avoid falling prey to the "Clever Hans" effect. Click here for a transcript of this episode (transcript doesn't capture how entertaining this show is to students).

Websites: Technologically Generated Visual Images Of Nature

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Suggested Readings For Students

Scott, B. A., Amel, E. L., Koger, S. M., & Manning, C. M. (2016). It's not easy thinking green. In Psychology for sustainability (4th ed., pp. 147-175). New York: Routledge.


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References Cited In This Section

Alhakami, A. S. & Slovic, P. (1994). A psychological study of the inverse relationship between perceived risk and perceived benefit. Risk Analysis, 14, 1085-1096.

Atran, S., Medin, D., & Ross, N. (2005). The cultural mind: Environmental decision making and cultural modeling within and across populations. Psychological Review, 112, 744-776.

Baron, J. (2006). Thinking about global warming. Climatic Change, 77, 137-150.

Bekoff, M. (2002). Minding animals: Awareness, emotions, and heart. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bekoff, M., Allen, C., & Burghardt, G. M. (Eds.) (2002). The cognitive animal: Empirical and theoretical perspectives on animal cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Benoît, M., & Norton, M. I., (2003). Perceptions of a fluid consensus: Uniqueness bias, false consensus, false polarization, and pluralistic ignorance in a water conservation crisis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 559-567.

Brower, M., & Leon, W. (1999). The consumer's guide to effective environmental choices: Practical advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Crist, E. (1999). Images of animals: Anthropomorphism and animal mind. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Datson, L., & Mitman, G. (2005). Thinking with animals: New perspectives on anthropomorphism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Drottz, B. M. & Sjö berg, L. (1990). Risk perception and worries after the Chernobyl accident. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 10, 135-149.

Dunlap, R., Van Liere, K., Mertig, A., & Jones, R. E. (2000). Measuring endorsement of the New Ecological Paradigm: A revised NEP scale. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 425-442.

Finucane, M. L., Alhakami, A. S., Slovic, P. & Johnson, S. M. (2000). The affect heuristic in judgments of risks and benefits. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 13, 1-17.

Flynn, J., Slovic, P. & Mertz, C. K. (1993). Decidedly different: Expert and public views of risks from a radioactive waste repository. Risk Analysis, 13, 643-648.

Gardner, G. T., & Stern, P. C. (2002). " Human reactions to environmental hazards: Perceptual andcognitive processes. " In Environmental problems and human behavior (2nd ed., pp. 205-252). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Greenberg, M., Sachsman, D., Sandman, P., & Salomone, K. (1989). Network evening news coverage of environmental risk. Risk Analysis, ., 119-126.

Herlihy, P. H. (2003). Participatory research mapping of indigenous lands in Darié n, Panama. Human Organization, 62, 315-331.

Kahneman, D., Ritov, I., Jacowitz, K. E., & Grant, P. (1993). Stated willingness to pay for public goods: A psychological perspective. Psychological Science, ., 310– 315.

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework [Special issue: Green Psychology]. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.

Kaplan, S. (2001). Meditation, restoration, and the management of mental fatigue [Special issue: Restorative Environments]. Environment and Behavior, 33, 480-506.

Kaplan, A., & Medin, D. L. (1997). The coincidence effect in similarity and choice. Memory & Cognition, 25, 570-576.

Keltner, D., & Robinson, R. J. (1996). Extremism, power, and the imagined basis of social conflict. Current Directions in Psychological Science, ., 101-105.

Kitchin, R. M. (1994). Cognitive maps: What are they and why study them? Journal of Environmental Psychology, 14, 1-19.

Kitchin, R. (1996). Methodological convergence in cognitive mapping research: Investigating configurational knowledge. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16, 163-185.

Knight, S., Vrij, A., Cherryman, J., & Nunkoosing, K. (2004). Attitudes toward animal use and belief in animal mind. Anthrozoos, 17, 43-62.

Kraus, N., Malmfors, T., & Slovic, P. (1992). Intuitive toxicology: Expert and lay judgments of chemical risks. Risk Analysis, 12, 215-232.

Lynch, K. (1960). The image of the city. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mametti, M., & Bortolotti, L. (2006). Animal rights, animal minds, and human mindreading. Journal of Medical Ethics, 32, 84-89.

Margolis, H. (1996). Dealing with risk: Why the public and experts disagree on environmental issues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mayer, F. S., & Frantz, C. M. (2004). The connectedness to nature scale: A measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, 503-515.

Medin, D., & Atran, S. (2004). The native mind: Biological categorization and reasoning in development and across cultures. Psychological Review, 111, 960-983.

Medin, D. L., Lynch, E. B., & Solomon, K. E. (2000). Are there kinds of concepts. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 121-147.

Mertz, C. K., Slovic, P., & Purchase, I. F. (1998). Judgments of chemical risks: Comparisons among senior managers, toxicologists, and the public. Risk Analysis, 18, 391-404.

Milgram, S., & Jodelet, D. (1976). Psychological maps of Paris. In H. Proshansky, W. Ittelson, & L. Rivlin (Eds.), Environmental psychology (pp. 104-124). New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Mitchell, R. W., Nicholas, T. S., & Miles, H. L., (Eds.) (1997). Anthropormorphism, anecdotes and animals. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Nickerson, R. S. (2003). Psychology and environmental change. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Peters, E., & Slovic, P. (1996). The role of affect and worldviews as orienting dispositions in the perception and acceptance of nuclear power. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 26, 1427-53.

Pronin, E., Gilovich, T., & Ross, L. (2004). Objectivity in the eye of the beholder: Divergent perceptions of bias in self versus others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 369-381.

Reeder, G., Pryor, J. B., Wohl, M. J. A., & Griswell, M. L. (2005). On attributing negative motives to others who disagree with our opinions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1498-1510.

Robinson, R. J., Keltner, D., Ward, A., & Ross, L. (1995). Actual versus assumed differences in construal: " Naive realism" in intergroup perception and conflict. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 68, 404-417.

Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The false consensus phenomenon: An attributional bias in self-perception and social-perception processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 279-301.

Schultz, P. W., Shriver, C., Tabanico, J., & Khazian, A. (2004). Implicit connections with nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, 31-42.

Scott, B. A., Amel, E. L., Koger, S. M., & Manning, C. M. (2016). It's not easy thinking green. In Psychology for sustainability (4th ed., pp. 147-175). New York: Routledge.

Seibert, P. S., & Anooshian, L. J. (1993). Indirect expression of preference in sketch maps. Environment and Behavior, 25, 607-624.

Sjöberg, L., & Drottz-Sjö berg, B. M. (2001). Fairness, risk and risk tolerance in the siting of a nuclear waste repository. Journal of Risk Research, ., 75-102.

Slovic, P. (1993). Perceptions of environmental hazards: Psychological perspectives. In T. Gä rling & R. G. Golledge, (Eds.), Behavior and environment: Psychological and geographical approaches. Advances in psychology, (Vol. 96., pp. 223-248). Oxford, England: North-Holland.

Slovic, P., Finucane, M. L., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2004). Risk as analysis and risk as feelings: Some thoughts about affect, reason, risk, and rationality. Risk Analysis, 24, 311-322.

Smith, D. A. (2003). Participatory mapping of community lands and hunting yields among the Buglé of Western Panama. Human Organization, 62, 332-343.

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Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, ., 207-232.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124-113.

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