What Is Conservation Psychology?

Lily Ruha

Conservation psychology is the examination of the way people view and interact with nature, and it has the purpose of designing interventions to promote conservation efforts. Understanding the dynamics that influence people to either ignore or support environmental sustainability is useful for effecting change. A close examination sometimes reveals that people do not feel powerful enough to have much of an impact through individual effort. Observing cultural perspectives also is helpful for understanding diverse views and designing effective interventions. Conservation psychology typically is distinguished from environmental psychology, which usually focuses less on conservation promotion and more on how the environment affects people.

Conservation psychology focuses on environmental sustainability.
Conservation psychology focuses on environmental sustainability.

The main goal of conservation psychology is to inspire behavioral changes with respect to environmental sustainability. Through speaking to individuals and groups, understanding environmental issues and observing cognitive and behavioral patterns, psychologists in this field work to understand human motivations regarding the environment. When motivations for ignoring conservation appeals or adopting environmentally friendly behaviors are better understood, it often becomes easier to develop effective strategies for increasing awareness and changing behaviors on a larger scale.

Conservation psychology examines the way people view and interact with nature.
Conservation psychology examines the way people view and interact with nature.

Conservation psychology explores deeper questions related to human motivation and conservation. While on the surface it might seem that a person is not interested in helping the environment, the real issue might be his or her feeling of helplessness or a belief that, on the grand scale, personal changes would be inconsequential. It often is necessary to break down the concept of the environment into smaller aspects to which individuals and groups can relate. Exploring the bond between human beings and animals is one area of close observation. Drawing on the calming effects of nature also is a strategy in creating awareness about the need for preservation.

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Cultural influences, values and priorities also are observed closely in conservation psychology. People in certain cultures do not keep wild animals as pets, but people in other cultures do. Members of some societies eat certain animals but feel strongly about preserving other animals. Understanding what causes compassion for certain animals and less concern about others is one of the tasks of conservation psychology. By understanding individual and collective thoughts and feelings, culturally appropriate strategies can be developed for increasing conservation awareness and promoting activism.

Although conservation psychology is similar to environmental psychology, it generally is understood that the latter places a greater focus on the way in which the environment affects human beings. Dialogue with experts in other disciplines is a large part of the conservation psychologist's work. Policy makers, educators, sociologists, environmental activists and communication experts are the various types of people with whom these psychologists communicate to increase greater awareness of conservation issues.

Conservation psychology might be applied to preserve endangered species.
Conservation psychology might be applied to preserve endangered species.

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