A Closer Look

Many psychologists do their part to protect the environment--maybe by owning a hybrid car or recycling or avoiding harmful chemicals in their lawn care. But a fast-growing group of psychologists within APA's Div. 34 (Population and Environmental) would like to see psychologists make an even greater contribution to the preservation of our parks, natural resources and wildlife by lending their research and applied skills to an emerging area known as conservation psychology.

Conservation psychology (CP), or the study of people's connection to the natural environment, is less of a specialty area within psychology than a hub for conservation collaboration, research and outreach, say its leaders, who for the last five years have been stepping up efforts to unite researchers and social scientists under the CP banner. CP's pioneers--who include social scientists and psychologists from a range of specialty areas--modeled it after the more established field of conservation biology, which mobilizes contributions from subdisciplines of biology, ecology, genetics and other fields to preserve the environment. CP leaders hope to tap similar contributions from psychology and other social sciences to lengthen their strides toward nature conservancy.

"Environmental sustainability challenges are human behavior challenges," says Div. 34 member and conservation psychologist Gene Myers Jr., PhD, an associate professor in the environmental studies department at Western Washington University. "We are hoping that rather than being another specialty area, that [CP] is perceived as a problem area and that people in every area of psychology will contribute."

Something for everyone

Among the specific psychology subfields that CP psychologists say could contribute more to conservation research and efforts:

  • Industrial and organizational psychology, such as through research on the greening of industry and workplace pollution.

  • Health psychology, such as through research on the health benefits of connecting with nature.

  • Consumer psychology, such as through studies on the environmental impact of consumption and how to further curb people's consumption of gas and other resources.

"Virtually all of psychology's subdisciplines have something to say that could help us do a better job with conservation of the natural world," notes conservation psychologist and pioneer Carol Saunders, PhD, who is director of communications research and conservation psychology at suburban Chicago's Brookfield Zoo.

One of the ways she and other CP leaders are working to attract psychologists from these areas and others is through a new Conservation Psychology Web site, www.conservationpsychology.org, devoted to the topic. The site includes research profiles on more than 50 conservation psychologists whose work covers a range of topics from creating park warning signs people will actually obey to encouraging recycling behavior to designing aquarium exhibits that promote conservation. Site visitors can search for researchers by state or research topic.

The site also features a link to a listserv designed to build connections between researchers and CP practitioners, such as environmental educators, parks administrators and policy-makers. These connections are an essential part of conservation psychology because natural resources and endangered species are at stake, says Saunders.

Green thinkers

Among the researchers profiled on the Web site is College of Wooster psychology professor Susan Clayton, PhD, who along with a team of biologists from Ohio State University, has spent more than a year gathering data on what's important to people about their home landscapes and yards and how they value and care for them. She's found that while people value their yard--and invest in it--as a place to observe and appreciate nature, they don't see their home landscape as a place where they might be harming the environment.

For the most part, she says, "They aren't worried about the impact of lawn-care companies; they don't know what chemicals are being used by the company."

She and her biologist collaborators will roll her findings into a project to redesign the landscapes of several small College of Wooster campus houses to model environmentally friendly options, such as the use of native plants, environmentally sound lawn care and other green practices.

Other notable researchers featured on the site include Louise Chawla, PhD, an environmental psychologist whose work on significant life experiences has been applied at zoos and other settings to help children develop caring attitudes towards nature, and Wesley Schultz, PhD, an applied social psychologist who explores relationships between environmental values and conservation action and develops new ways to measure people's connection to nature.

Further Reading

For more information on conservation psychology, visit www.humanecologyreview.org/102.htm. Researchers interested in adding their profile to the Conservation Psychology Web site can contact Carol Saunders, PhD.

Div. 34 at a glance

Members of APA's Population and Environmental Psychology division are interested in understanding human behavior as it relates to population and the relationship between human behavior and the environment. Members work on a broad array of topics, including human response to natural and technological hazards, conservation, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, environmental perception and cognition, and environmental design. The division publishes the newsletter Population & Environmental Psychology Bulletin three times a year and sponsors a member listserv for networking. For more information, visit the division Web site at http://web.uvic.ca/~apadiv34. To join, e-mail Division Secretary Susan Clayton, PhD.