Two Generations of Woosterians Apply Psychology to Environmental Conservation

Researchers with ties to The College of Wooster reach out to ecologists in journal article

August 5, 2013 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Efforts to reverse the impact of environmental degradation and move toward practices of sustainability can be aided by the work of psychologists, according to researchers with ties to The College of Wooster.

Susan Clayton, professor of psychology at Wooster, and E. Scott Geller, a 1964 Wooster graduate and now Alumni Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Virginia Tech, along with Carla Litchfield, professor of psychology at the University of Australia, believe that their field can and should encourage changes in human behavior that could forestall, if not reverse, the anthropogenic impact on Planet Earth.

Clayton and Geller first met when Geller visited Wooster as an alumnus. The two have known each other for the better part of a decade, and have similar interests regarding the role of psychology in environmental conservation. “I thought it would be fun to work with Scott on this project, so I invited him to do so, and he agreed,” says Clayton. “It’s an honor to have a distinguished researcher like him as a co-author.”

Psychologists have a tradition of interventions designed to change behavior. In fact, many in the field are already working to apply psychological knowledge and tools in order to protect environmental resources. Until now, this perspective has not been widely considered in applied conservation settings.

In order to protect natural resources and biological diversity, both behavioral and natural scientists should do more to look beyond their disciplinary boundaries, according to a forthcoming article in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment authored by Clayton, Geller, and Litchfield. “Psychologists need to be involved in environmental conservation and sustainability,” they say, “not only because it is in their interest as human beings, but also because it is a professional obligation to consider environmental health along with other factors relevant to physical or mental health.”

The article, which is scheduled to be published in September, describes existing barriers to effective conservation interventions on the part of both psychologists and conservation professionals while providing suggestions for more productive engagement. One example of the application of psychological science in promoting environmental stewardship is presented in a zoo setting, where Clayton has done extensive research. The overall objective of the three psychologists is to raise awareness about the potential for collaboration and to urge conservation professionals to work with psychologists in an effort to proactively address the myriad of environmental challenges.

The thesis of the three authors is that protecting natural resources requires a change in human behavior. They go on to say that influences on behavior are not always obvious or intuitive and that interventions that fail to incorporate relevant psychological science may be unsuccessful because of inaccurate assumptions.

Clayton, Geller, and Litchfield assert that people have a lot at stake in environmental protection initiatives “both because of the causal influence of humans and because of the potential harm to humans.” Policies that promote environmental conservation and ecosystem protection “can be more effective if informed by psychological research.”