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Lecture/Discussion Topics

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References Cited in this Section

Lecture/Discussion Topics

Evolutionary Roots of Unsustainable Behavior

Many have argued that human traits that were adaptive in our ancestral environments are proving maladaptive given the current ecological crisis; in fact, many of our evolved predispositions contribute directly to unsustainable behaviors. Humans are no different than other species in that we are wired for survival, but we have developed technologies that have allowed us to inflict unprecedented harm on the natural systems that support us, and our perceptual systems, which evolved in an environment where threats were sudden and immediate, leave us ill-equipped to track gradually worsening problems that take many years to manifest (e.g., climate change). Ask students to brainstorm about innate tendencies in humans that may lead to ecologically destructive choices. They may come up with things such as our self-interest, shortsightedness, desire for status, tendency to conform, and visual dependence. These biases are explored by van Vugt, Griskevicius, and Schultz (2014), along with a discussion about how these tendencies may be harnessed to promote sustainable behavior. For instance, pro-environmental appeals are more effective if they emphasize an individuals “genetic future” or offer financial and social incentives. Their article includes a table outlining the evolved biases, intervention opportunities, and a wealth of examples.


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 lecture topic on 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. Benoît 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 Benoît 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.

Risk Assessment And Environmental Hazards

Risk assessment applies cognitive psychology to environmental and other hazards. Numerous studies have explored the public’s perception of risks associated with environmental hazards such as nuclear waste and toxic chemicals. 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. Research 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

Slovic, Finucane, Peters, and MacGregor (2004) argued 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 influenced by information designed to increase favorable affect.


Quantitative Illiteracy

Review some relevant statistics, for instance: “A child born in the U.S. will create thirteen times as much ecological damage over the course of his or her lifetime than a child born in Brazil… The average American will drain as many resources as 35 natives of India, and consume 53 times more goods and services than someone from China” (Tilford, quoted in Use It, 2012). Citizens of the U.S. comprise less than 5% of the world’s population, but use nearly one-quarter of the world’s energy resources (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2015).

When information is presented as abstract statistics, risks about climate change and other environmental threats do not evoke strong emotional responses or motivation to address the situation (e.g., Weber, 2006). Discussion could center on the following concepts from cognitive and evolutionary psychology; Instructors can also make statistics more salient by using The Cookie Exercise.

a) How would an evolutionary psychologist explain why most people have difficulty conceptualizing very large numbers? (i.e., A billion may as well be a trillion or a gazillion; only specialists deal in such numbers often enough to have a good understanding of them).

b) Consider the following: “Scientists predict in 40 years, global warming will displace 20 million people from Beijing, 40 million from Shanghai and surrounding areas, and 60 million from Calcutta and Bangladesh” (Bennett, 2008, p. 2). How do students feel about these staggering numbers?

c) Most individuals react more strongly to environmental and other threats after reading a story about one, personally salient individual rather than statistics concerning thousands or a million potential victims (Slovic, 2007; Slovic & Slovic, 2004-2005). Ask students to generate some examples of when they’ve seen this technique used to advantage (e.g., in fundraising campaigns).

d) Based on this information, have students create a story about climate change that would be more emotionally evocative and publicly persuasive regarding taking action. (This part could also be combined with the Communicating about Climate Change Activity, below.

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: Yerkes Dodson Law. People can’t solve problems, particularly complex and challenging ones, when they are emotionally overwhelmed (see also Weick, 1984).

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 pro-social 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?

Language and Framing

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 Blogor have students review newspapers, magazine articles, and other press for examples to bring in for class discussion.

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.

Addressing Temporal Discounting

In addition to self versus group interest (i.e., social dilemmas) underpinning sustainable behavior, there are temporal conflicts between short- and long-term benefits and costs. Specifically, deciding to behave sustainably “requires a focus on future outcomes at the expense of immediate benefits,” and often at increased personal cost in terms of time and money.  Arnocky et al., (2013) demonstrated that priming can be used to reduce participants’ immediate concerns (i.e., by imagining their life circumstances four years from now) and thus increase environmental engagement. The researchers concluded that “advertisements and awareness campaigns would benefit from a focus on minimizing immediacy concerns (e.g., overcoming opposition to the initial costs of solar energy production), rather than focusing solely on promoting a future orientation, such as those directed at maintaining the planet for individuals living generations from now.”

Cross-Cultural Conceptualizations Of Nature

Atran, Medin, and Ross (2005; see also Medin & Atran, 2004) reported 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 their 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 transmitted. 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)

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).

Implicit Associations And Connectedness To Nature

Schultz, Shriver, Tabanico, and Khazian (2004) used 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 was 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 Animal Einsteins). The episode includes demonstrations of research paradigms that test various cognitive abilities in animals including counting, language, category formation, and perspective taking.


Illustrating Heuristics/Biases With Environmental Content

Anchoring and adjustment, the availability heuristic, the representativeness heuristic, conjunction fallacy, and framing are illustrated with these pdf handouts. 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, 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?

Priming Thoughts About Global Warming

Split the class into two groups, and give each half the following prompt with one of the two suggested endings: “Write about a time when you were enjoying a [warm summer day] OR [cold winter day].” Next, show a word list via PowerPoint, with the preamble that they will be tested on their memory, to ensure that they’ll be attentive and actively process the word list. Include related words (hot, humid, boiling; freezing, brisk, icy) as well as neutral ones (stairs, carpet, chairs). Finally, administer an attitude scale with ratings of statements about global warming, interspersed with items about politics, economics, social security, etc., such as that developed by Guéguen (2012; see questions, below), using a scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). (Activity adapted from Bell, et al., 2012.)

  1. I have already noticed some signs of global warming.
  2. It seems to me that the temperature is warmer now than in previous years.
  3. Weather patterns seem to have changed compared to when I was a child.
  4. I am quite sure that global warming is occurring.
  5. I think the public is becoming more and more disinterested in politics.
  6. I believe current rates of unemployment will persist for many years to come.
  7. To maintain social security, people must continue to work much later into their lives.
  8. Developing learning through higher education better connects young people to the business world.
  9. It is necessary to reduce the costs of doing business in order to stimulate economic growth.
  10. One cannot hope to diminish the federal debt without reducing the number of governmental employees.

Assessing Environmental Risks

To demonstrate how risk assessment works, have students rank order the following hazards according to their perception of how much of a health risk each poses.

Radiation Persistent organic pollutants Pesticides
Global warming Hazardous waste sites Population growth

After completing the rankings, compare student answers with other lay-persons and experts in the United States; their rank ordering was out of 24 risks. (Adapted from Slimak & Dietz, 2006, p. 1695.) Note that although these data are perhaps a bit dated, the point is that experts generally assess risk differently than laypeople.

As of 2016, “failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation” was ranked by 750 experts as having the “greatest potential impact,” and the related issue of “large-scale involuntary migration” being highly concerning (World Economic Forum).

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.

The Cookie Exercise: A Tasty Glimpse into Grasping Statistics

It can be difficult to wrap one’s head around the statistics regarding disproportionate consumption of the world’s resources by U.S. citizens (see above Lecture Material on Quantitative Illiteracy). The following exercise can be helpful in making the point. Instructors will need to bring to class a number of cookies or other material to represent “energy resources.” You should bring enough for each student to have one, although you will not be distributing them one per person (see data and additional instructions here).

1) Display information about the World’s consumption of petroleum.

2) Form student groups to represent each geographic region.

3) Divide the cookies or other “resource” based on their assigned region’s relative energy consumption.

4) Have students engage in class discussion or reflective writing based on these prompts (adapted from Wheeler, Goekler, Hibbard, Boyd, Wondra, & Bush, 2002).

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

Ask students to read The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, published by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University Guide.  Then have them work in pairs to create a poster, brochure, or video-recorded public service announcement (PSA). Koenig & Reyns (2012) suggested having students: 

(1) Create an 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 the 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 an accompanying paper or presentation, 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)?

(3) Finally, students could present their ads and get peer feedback (positive as well as constructive).


Film: Dan Gilbert – It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine) (2014, 22:31)

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 the threats faced by human ancestors: intentional, immoral, imminent, instantaneous.

Film: George Lakoff, et al. (2015, 59:05)

What we think about when we try not to think about climate change 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.

Film: The Language of Climate Change (2014; 4:14)

The Language of Climate Change is a short video featuring the linguist, George Lakoff.

Film: Noam Chomsky – Peak Oil and a Changing Climate (2011; 21:49)

This film features linguist, philosopher, and political activist, Noam Chomsky. During the first 5 1/2 minutes, he addresses partisan politics, stereotypes, and cognitive biases/heuristics.


Websites: Communicating about climate change

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication  conducts “research on public climate change knowledge, attitudes, policy preferences, and behavior, and the underlying psychological, cultural, and political factors that influence them [and engages] the public in climate change science and solutions.”

Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions published an informative guide on communicating effectively regarding climate change.

The Resource Innovation Group’s Climate Access Social Capital Project offers a guide on communications and behavior change to help overcome “the manufactured scientific uncertainty debate with a focus on climate impacts and solutions.”



Website and Films: Frances Moore Lappé – The Small Planet Institute

This site 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.

Websites: Technologically Generated Visual Images Of Nature

  • Haworth Village nature page has time lapse photography of various natural phenomena.
  • Nikon camera company hosts a page of microscopic nature photographs.
  • Google Earth allows viewers to zoom in on planetary regions captured in satellite photography.
  • The U. S. Government’s “Earth as Art” site portrays “some of the most visually stunning satellite images of Earth’s surface.”

Film:  PBS Scientific American Frontiers – “Animal Einsteins” (1999)

Scientific American Frontiers, hosted by Alan Alda, is an excellent resource for many topics in psychology and environmental studies. Season 9, Episode 3: Animal Einsteins (56:50) 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. (Note that the transcript doesn’t capture how entertaining the full show is to students).

Suggested Readings For Students

Bennett, L. (2008, Nov. 14). Are human beings hard-wired to ignore the threat of catastrophic climate change?  From Greater Good, 2, 40-43. Retrieved 10-18-15 from

Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (2009). The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A guide for scientists, journalists, educators, political aides, and the interested public. New York.

Couto, R. A. (2012). Overcoming the environmental stalemate. Solutions, 3(2), 66-68. Retrieved Oct. 11, 2018 from[This is a summary of Frances Moore Lappe’s (2011) book, EcoMind: Changing the way we think, to create the world we want.]

Jessie (2018).  Why you don’t care about climate change. Available at

Kalof, L. (ed.) (2017). The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies. New York: Oxford University Press.

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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