Green thinking

Published on 07 December 2021 Go back to The ACU Review
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Four things psychology tells us about people’s attitudes to nature.

By Lucy Richardson, Monash University, Australia

Relatively early in my working life, I joined an environmental not-for-profit organisation that worked with people near my home town to help them improve how they managed their land. After several years, I came to wonder why some people did so much to help nature and others didn’t. I began to realise that ‘environmental management’ wasn’t really about the environment, it was about people. So I decided to stretch myself beyond my environmental engineering background by studying psychology, to better understand why people do what they do and why they don’t.

There are many streams within psychology that examine people’s relationships with nature. Cultural psychology, for example, explores how our cultures shape the way we think and act; it considers cultural values such as how we relate to time, how we regard the environment, and whether we prize the individual above the group. Evolutionary psychology examines how our ways of thinking and acting have adapted over time in the context of our various and changing environments. And environmental psychology looks at how we think and behave in interaction with our surroundings.

Researchers have explored our relationships with nature from the broadest societal and cultural scales down to the individual, as well as the connections between these. Here, I’m going to explain four of their valuable insights that can help us understand why our attitudes to nature are anything but straightforward.

1.  Our worldviews can be worlds apart

Worldviews are the fundamental values and beliefs that underpin how people and societies understand and think about the world. They guide our behaviour and the expectations we have of how the world does and should work; of what’s important and what’s not.

Worldviews have been categorised in a range of different ways, but I want to draw your attention to a framework used by researchers from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation to examine the environmental views of Australians. This framework categorised people’s worldviews based on where they sat on two axes: the value they placed on individuals versus the group, and the value placed on the level of definition and constraint seen as necessary for individuals’ social roles and behaviour.

These researchers found that people’s worldviews regarding social roles and behaviour didn’t have a strong influence on their views on nature. What did matter, however, was the value they placed on the individual versus the collective. Those who valued the individual above the collective tended to see the natural environment as resilient to human interference – in terms of both damaging and restorative actions. In contrast, those whose worldviews valued the collective above the individual tended to see the natural world as having been altered by human activity and having difficulty bouncing back from either damage or efforts to restore it. This latter group were most likely to believe that nature must be kept in balance and that human growth must have limits.

So, while Australia and countries like it may be seen as individualistic at the national level, there are people within every culture who value wider society above the individual and are likely to support action that protects the natural world.

2.  It might depend on which hat you’re wearing

You may be familiar with the concept of people ‘wearing different hats’ depending on which job or role they’re currently doing. I know I’ve told friends that I’m wearing my ‘mum’ hat or my ‘teacher’ hat when dealing with a particular situation. These different hats symbolise our multiple identities.

Two different forms of identity have been examined in terms of attitudes to nature: social identity and self-identity. Our social identity is defined by the social groups to which we belong – a sports team, religion, profession, or political allegiance, for example. Social identities might include our identity as an Australian, a teacher, or a football fan. They are relational in nature, in that they place us in relation to other people in society.

Self-identities, however, are based on the more stable aspects of our self-perception and can relate to our personality traits, abilities, physical attributes, and interests. Because both forms of identity have similar underlying assumptions and structures, they are often grouped together. Here, I'll use the term 'identity' to include both concepts.

When we talk about people ‘wearing different hats', those hats symbolise their multiple identities An array of brightly coloured hats

The way we see ourselves influences both how we think and how we act. Our identities are not fixed, but remain dynamic and fluid. They tend to guide our behaviour depending on which of our identities is top of mind at that moment and best fits our beliefs about the differences between ‘us’ – the likeminded group to which we feel we belong (our ingroup) – and ‘them’: those people outside our group (our outgroup).

When a particular identity is top of mind, our expectations of what it means to be part of that ingroup influences our attitudes. For example, a study by a researcher at Yale University found that members of the US public with partisan Democrat and Republican social identities responded differently to the same policy depending on whether it was presented as coming from their own or the other political party. For example, Democrats who thought the policy came from the Republican party (their outgroup) perceived it as much less moral and acceptable than when they believed it came from their own party (their ingroup).

This means that our attitudes to nature are not nearly as fixed as we might think, but can shift and change with whichever of our identities is top of mind. If an individual’s political identity doesn’t help them feel responsible for their impact on nature, one of their other identities might – their parent or workplace identity, for example.

3.  Our (dis)connection with nature is open to change

In many western cultures, humans are seen as separate to nature rather than part of it. This disconnection of ‘self’ from the natural world often appears hand in hand with a more individualistic worldview, and can be exacerbated by the physical disconnection from nature experienced in cities. This sense of separation matters because a deeper connection to nature has been shown to lead to more environmentally-friendly behaviours.

So, how can we close the divide? Research points to two factors that influence our sense of connection with nature: our levels of self-interest and our capacity for empathy.

A study by researchers in the US suggests that the prominence of our sense of self (the ‘I/me’ factor) interacts closely with our sense of connectedness to nature: people who are less focused on themselves tend to have greater feelings of connection and vice versa, echoing those findings I mentioned earlier around individualistic versus collectivistic worldviews. Similarly, a study conducted in Italy found that the higher a person’s capacity for empathy, the higher their sense of connection with nature. This latter insight is particularly important because empathy can be learned and improved with training.

Studies suggest that the higher a person’s capacity for empathy, the greater their sense of connection with nature A conceptual illustration of a person managing their emotions

4.  Attitudes are only one piece of the puzzle

People’s attitudes to nature are complex. They’re swayed by many different factors and can shift over time and in different situations. Understanding why we have such diverse views is an important part of working out how to reach different people and find common ground. But when it comes to changing behaviour, attitudes are only one piece of the puzzle.

There have been many theories posed in recent decades to help us understand why individuals do or don’t do any particular behaviour. In most of these theories, attitudes are one of the earlier precursors of action, but there are other factors at play: our actual and perceived capacity to do the behaviour, our attitudes to the behaviour itself (as opposed to attitudes to nature), situational and structural barriers, and even stubborn habits that come between our desire to protect nature and the action required to do so.

Recent psychological models suggest that environmental behaviour change comes in stages ­– from a person’s initial awareness of the problem to the point at which something becomes habit. People rarely progress through these stages of change in a nice linear way, but rather move up and down the stages as they learn more about themselves, the problem, and their options.

As they progress through each stage, people have different needs in terms of the information and motivation that can help or hinder them from moving forwards. For anyone hoping to encourage more environmentally-friendly behaviour in others, understanding your audience and what is likely to influence them can help you to tailor your messaging to people at different stages of change.

So, while our attitude to nature may not be the only thing that affects how we behave towards it, knowing that these attitudes aren’t set in stone can be a cause for hope at a time when society’s relationship with the natural world can seem so fractured. Understanding each other's diverse attitudes and identities – the different hats we wear, the worldviews we hold, and the factors that make us more likely to care – can help us to connect with people, find common ground, and inspire others to change.

Dr Lucy Richardson is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University, on the lands of the Kulin Nations, Australia. She is also a member of the Commonwealth Futures Climate Research Cohort – a joint ACU and British Council initiative that supports rising-star researchers from around the world to bring local knowledge to a global stage.

llustrations by Jess Rodríguez at Alamy. Hats photographed by pixinoo at iStock

Is the climate crisis  threatening our mental wellbeing as well as our planet? Check out 'Mental health in a changing climate' from our previous issue on public mental health.