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Lecture/Discussion Topics

Availability Heuristic and Evolutionary Mechanisms

To illustrate the availability heuristic, ask students how many people were killed on 9/11/2001. (It was just under 3,000). Then ask how many premature deaths occur annually, worldwide, from cardiac and respiratory diseases along with lung cancer caused by air pollution (~3 million, and that number could double by 2050 (Ansari, 2015)). Students’ estimates regarding 9/11 were likely much closer to being accurate than estimates regarding air pollution.  Discuss as a class why 9/11 information is so much more available to memory, as opposed to what have been called, “daily dull deaths,” even when such deaths constitute the majority, and are much more likely to affect them personally.  Along with media influences, how might evolutionary processes contribute to this mental shortcut? (We are evolutionarily “wired” to respond to intentional, sudden, and dramatic changes, and those we have a strong moral outrage about (e.g., see Dan Gilbert’s film, listed below)).

For instance, consider the physiological stress (fight or flight) response. Terrorist attacks – even those occurring far away, but made vivid through TV and internet news coverage – activate the stress response in ways that most environmental health risks don’t.  Environmental risks – at least, so far – generally involve uncertainty about specific, personal outcomes, and comprise delayed impacts, often at distant locations. Consequently, people take such risks less seriously than those perceived as more direct (Gattig & Hendrickx, 2007).

Threat evaluation includes asking:

  • Is it happening here, now, to me or those I care most about? (proximal cognition)  
  • Can I see it? (visual dependency)
  • Is the change sudden and dramatic? (vs. sensory adaptation)
  • Have I heard it all before? (habituation)

Consequently, public concern about climate change will likely increase as impacts occur more locally and are thus more salient, as moderate stress can mobilize responses, including problem-solving (Weber, 2006) — so long as people aren’t overwhelmed (see section above re. Terror Management Theory), AND are also given specific direction in terms of how to respond.

Instructors could also bring in the topic of Comparative optimism (Pahl et al., 2005): People tend to underestimate risks to one’s-self relative to other people, leading to reduced action to try to diminish the threat. This is a form of a defense mechanism.


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:

  • Availability Heuristic According to Tversky and Kahneman (1973) the availability heuristic leads people to overestimate the likelihood and frequency of things or events that come easily to mind because they are more available in memory. Gardner and Stern (2002) cite several studies that support their suggestion that the availability heuristic may be responsible for both risk underestimation and risk overestimation associated with environmental hazards. For example, they suggest that people may have difficulty imagining the risks associated with global warming because of a lack of vivid personal experience with melting icecaps and rising sea levels. On the other hand, Gardner and Stern continue, dramatic environmental hazards, such as oil spills, feature prominently in people’s memories and may, therefore, receive more attention and resources than are warranted relative to other less perceptually vivid, but more insidious, hazards. One reason that environmental hazards like oil spills may be more vividly represented in people’s memories is because they are more vividly represented in the media (Greenberg, Sachsman, Sandman, & Salamone, 1989). In sum, the availability heuristic may lead people to focus on sustainable behaviors that may prevent risks they can envision at the expense of sustainable behaviors that might prevent risks that they cannot easily imagine.
  • Anchoring And Adjustment Tversky and Kahneman (1974) described how people’s judgments are adjusted in relation to implicit reference points (anchors). Estimates of the human impact on the environment can be influenced by anchors embedded in response options. More broadly, this heuristic can be applied to understanding the role of direct action among environmental advocates’ tactics. To the extent that students are familiar with direct action tactics in the environmental movement, they may have the misperception that direct action is intended to be violent; many, therefore, dismiss it as ” too extreme” and assume it does not accomplish anything productive. For example, our students tend to associate EarthFirst! with tree-spiking– and wrongly believe that the goal of tree-spiking is to injure loggers (instead of to prevent the logging from happening). Ask students to think about direct action in terms of an anchoring-and-adjustment model. Even when the actions themselves are ultimately unsuccessful at preventing environmental destruction, radical activism in general represents an extreme position on the activism spectrum (i. e., a cognitive anchor) that helps to make the less radical positions assumed by mainstream environmental organizations seem more moderate than they otherwise would. (Ask students to also consider how some of the more theatrical direct actions may influence what people retrieve when they apply the availability heuristic to environmental issues.)
  • The Coincidence Effect According to Kaplan and Medin (1997), coincidence (pronounced ” coincide-ence”) is a judgment bias in which two items that match on a single dimension but are very different on another dimension are perceived as more similar to each other than two items that are only modestly different on both dimensions. Tanner and Jungbluth (2003) investigated whether the coincidence effect occurs in people’s choices about environmentally friendly food products. Participants were presented with descriptions of vegetables that varied along the four primary dimensions that determine a food product’s environmental impact: agricultural practice, origin, packaging, and conservation method. In the first study, participants were asked to judge how environmentally friendly a particular vegetable was compared to either an environmentally positive (ideal) or environmentally negative (anti-ideal) reference. In the second study, they were asked to judge, “ How much more or less environmentally harmful is [the vegetable] compared with a standard? ” The researchers hypothesized that participants would be more likely to look for similarities in the first task and for differences in the second. They found evidence for the coincidence effect in the first task and for an anti-coincidence effect in the second; in some cases judgments of the same food products varied depending upon the judgment task. The authors conclude, ” Even though consumers may have the relevant knowledge, motivation, and willingness to make environmentally appropriate purchases, they may sometimes arrive at the wrong conclusions… people may underestimate the environmental friendliness of products in some cases and may overestimate it in others. ” (p. 10-11)
  • False Consensus & Uniqueness Bias Benoî t and Norton (2003) conducted a 5-day field study during and after a temporary shower ban at Princeton University in 1999 that was prompted by a water shortage following a tropical storm. The researchers found that student participants displayed evidence of both false consensus (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977) and the uniqueness bias (Suls & Wan, 1987). Specifically, those who defied the shower ban overestimated the prevalence of this socially irresponsible behavior in others (false consensus) and the prevalence of showering by others was overestimated during the ban but underestimated when the ban was lifted (false uniqueness).
  • False Polarization In the Benoî t and Norton shower ban study, bathers were seen as caring very little about the greater good and nonbathers as caring very much about the greater good; the attitudinal positions of these two groups were perceived to be much farther apart than self-reports suggested they actually were. This misperception of extremity of position is an example of false polarization (Keltner & Robinson, 1996; Robinson, Keltner, Ward, & Ross, 1995). We tend to perceive the views of those on the opposing side of a partisan debate as more extreme than they really are, to perceive opponents as more susceptible to biased thinking than we are, and to attribute negative motives to those on the opposing side of a debate (e. g., Pronin, Gilovich, & Ross, 2004; Reeder, Pryor, Rohl, & Griswell, 2005). Although it has not been explored empirically, it is theoretically likely that those who embrace the ” environmentalist” label and those who reject it exhibit this perceptual asymmetry when they characterize each other.
  • ” Natural Is Good” Jonathan Baron (2006) describes how several environmentally specific ” biases” may influence people’s ideas regarding how to deal with global climate change. These include ” natural is good, ” ” the pollutor pays, ” ” undoing harm is better than doing other good, ” and ” parochialism” (favoring the ingroup at the expense of outsiders and even one’s self-interest). As Baron describes, the ” nature is good” heuristic is evidenced in research on people’s willingness to pay (WTP) for ” public goods” related to the environment (e. g., protection of a wildlife species). The financial contributions that many individuals make to environmental causes seem to indicate an economic valuation of those goods, but some studies suggest that the cause of a threat to the natural environment affects people’s WTP to alleviate the threat. For example, Kahneman, Ritov, Jakowitz, and Grant (1993) found that visitors to a San Francisco science museum were significantly more outraged and more willing to pay when they were informed of an environmental threat (e. g., animal extinction, forest fires) that was caused by human action as compared to when that same threat was caused by ” natural” forces. The researchers conclude that people’s WTP to alleviate human impacts on environmental public goods represents not their economic valuation of the resource but their desire to make a contribution that expresses their attitudes and values.

Fear, Just Worlds, and Terror Management Theory

Most scientists and environmentalists continue to use fear-based appeals to try to inspire behavior change, despite considerable research suggesting that such appeals aren’t particularly effective. In fact, fear can trigger habitual behaviors that exacerbate environmental degradation. Instructors could ask students to generate some examples.

Over a century ago, Yerkes and Dodson (1908) observed that optimal performance occurs at moderate levels of arousal or stress (see figure, below. People can’t solve problems, particularly complex and challenging ones, when they are emotionally overwhelmed (see also Weick, 1984.

Figure: Yerkes Dodson Law

Feinberg & Willer (2011) reported the results of two studies, supporting the theory that “information about the potentially dire consequences of global warming threatens deeply held beliefs that the world is just, orderly, and stable. Individuals overcome this threat by denying or discounting the existence of global warming, and this process ultimately results in decreased willingness to counteract climate change…. [They concluded] that less dire messaging could be more effective for promoting public understanding of climate-change research.”

Comparably, Dickinson (2009) applied the principles of terror management theory to climate change, noting that predictions about the dire and rapidly approaching consequences are – paradoxically —  driving a more intense defense of the “American way of life” (i.e., cultural materialism), and attempts to enhance personal self-esteem, including via status symbols derived from material consumption. Somehow, we need to convey the urgency of the situation and engage and empower our audiences without overwhelming them, or sending them into despair or retail therapy.

Importantly, efforts to leave a legacy, such as contributing to the sustainability of one’s community and other prosocial behaviors, can also enhance self-esteem when faced with anxiety concerning one’s mortality (Wade-Benzoni, Tost, Hernandez, & Larrick, 2012).

After providing this theoretical background, students could engage in small group discussions about the kinds of messages that might be more effective. How might one be encouraged to focus on strengthening one’s legacy versus engaging in materialistic pursuits?


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):

  • people underestimate their own risks because of being overly optimistic
  • people have trouble estimating long-term risks
  • people don’t always have all relevant information for estimating risk
  • risk assessment is affected by availability in memory
  • risk assessment is influenced by emotions
  • acknowledging risk can be overly threatening

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.


Framing is an important aspect of communicating about climate change and other “environmental” issues. George Lakoff is a linguist who has written extensively about the importance of metaphors and framing (a.k.a. “cognitive schemas”), and how they influence decision making and behavior.  He wrote, “have you ever wondered why conservatives can communicate easily in a few words, while liberals take paragraphs?  The reason is that conservatives have spent decades, day after day building up frames in people’s brains, and building a better communication system to get their ideas out in public. Progressives have not done that.” (Lakoff, 2010, p. 73).  Instructors could lecture on some of the examples provided in Lakoff’s article, in his books, or on-line Blog* (or have students review newspapers, magazine articles, and other press for examples to bring in for class discussion.

*Available at

If Only Climate Change was Trying to Kill Us…

Ask students to consider the following:  “If we learned that Al Qaeda was secretly developing a new terrorist technique that could disrupt water supplies around the globe, force tens of millions from their homes, and potentially endanger our entire planet, we would be aroused into a frenzy and deploy every possible asset to neutralize the threat. Yet that is precisely the threat that we’re creating ourselves with greenhouse gases” (Kristof, 2007). What is different between a “terrorist” threat and the threat of climate change? Instructors may wish to follow this discussion with Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert’s explanation of the four characteristics of threats our ancestors faced:  that humans evolved systems to respond to PAINful threats – Personal, Abrupt, Immoral, and happening Now.


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)

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.

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).

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.

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).


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.

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:
  • Did different individuals come up with the same exemplars of the categories ” nature” and ” not nature”?
  • Did different individuals sort the cards similarly?
  • Did you find consistency in the features that individuals use to distinguish between ” nature” and ” not nature”?
  • What factors affected participants’ indecisiveness about some words? Did you find any evidence that categorization is feature-dependent (e. g., a participant might explain, ” If it is a hike-in campground in a wilderness area I would call it nature, but if it is a KOA filled with RVs I would not call it nature”). Did you find any evidence that categorization is context-dependent (e. g., a participant might say, ” Well, an apple still growing on the tree is nature but it’s not nature once it is in the grocery store. “)
  • Did you find any evidence that expertise or familiarity might influence an individual’s judgment? (e. g., a participant who understands that cows are domestic animals that have been bred by humans and do not exist in the wild might categorize cows as ” not nature” even though cows are living creatures)
  • What do you think about the distinction between natural kind and artifact categories?

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 images of 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?

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):

  • How concerned are you about your use of _________________?
  • How essential to your lifestyle do you consider _________________?
  • How willing are you to choose alternatives to ____________?
  • How much are you willing to spend for alternatives to _____________?

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?

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).

Making it Real – Getting Up Close & Personal with Climate Change

As described above in the lecture topics about the availability heuristic, public concern about climate change will likely increase as impacts occur more locally and are thus more salient (Weber, 2006). The following reflection exercise is intended to help students reflect on and identify ways to productively engage with the threat of climate change. Students could write a reaction paper (2-4 pgs), and/or discuss some or all of the following prompts in small groups.

  • When you hear the phrase, “global warming,” what thoughts, images, hopes, fears, and other feelings come up for you?
  • How will climate change impact your life?
  • How will climate change impact the lives of those you care about?  
  • Are you concerned about the effects of climate change on other species?
  • What could you personally do to reduce your contributions to climate change? (Note that “Not contributing to the problem is part of the solution” (author unknown)).
  • How might those changes benefit your life/health?  
  • How would the world/your community be enhanced if your family and friends all joined you in making those changes?

Communicating About Climate Change & Personal with Climate Change

Ask students to read The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, published by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University Guide (available at  Then have them work in pairs to create a poster, brochure, or public service announcement (PSA) aimed at influencing environmentally relevant behaviors on your campus or surrounding community.  Students should also write an accompanying description of their materials and explain their choices. Finally, students could present their ads and get peer feedback (positive as well as constructive).

PSA Regarding Climate Change

The following sample instructions were provided by Koenig & Reyns (2012) :

(1) “Create your own advertisement to convince people that climate change is occurring, and/or to motivate people to change their behavior to reduce the effects of climate change. In your ad, be sure to mention at least 1 cause of climate change, at least 1 consequence of climate change, and use persuasive and cognitive techniques that would make people more likely to pay attention to and follow your advice.

(2) “In your paper, explain potential locations for your ad and its intended audience. Use the readings and/or class discussion about attitudes, persuasion, and cognitive biases to justify the decisions you make about your ad. Why do you think your ad would be persuasive and avoid cognitive biases (or use cognitive biases to your advantage)?


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: It’s the end of the world and we know it (and I feel fine)

Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert’s (2014) talk describes the evolutionary basis for our difficulty responding to climate change, a threat which lacks the four features of threats faced by human ancestors: intentional, immoral, imminent, instantaneous. 

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

Additional Websites and Films

Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

The Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University including the CRED guide on communicating effectively regarding climate change.

Climate Access – The Social Capital Project of The Resource Innovation Group, i.e., the guide on Climate Communications and Behavior Change.

The Small Planet Institute provides many resources, including a Powerpoint presentation and videos based on Frances Moore Lappé’s (2011) book, EcoMind: Changing the way we think, to create the world we want. Lappé describes a number of thought traps embedded within our current mental models that keep us stuck in unsustainable patterns, and reasons for optimism. As stated on the website, “Ideas have power, so we work to reframe limiting ideas – of scarcity, power, and democracy – to free citizens to create living democracies, turning our planet toward life.” Lappé is also featured in a number of Youtube videos.

The Language of Climate Change (2014; 4:14), features linguist George Lakoff.

What we think about when we try not to think about climate change (2015; 59:05) is a podcast that includes authors George Lakoff, Kari Norgaard, and Per Espen Stoknes speaking on the psychology and sociology of climate change denial, and creating a green energy future.

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.

CRED Guide. Find at

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.

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