Paper Urges Behavior Change in Conservation Practices

Posted: July 23, 2013 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: July 25, 2013 at 7:10 am

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By Tara Laskowski

Loggerhead sea turtle, an endangered animal. National Park Service photo

Loggerhead sea turtle, an endangered species. National Park Service photo

Economists and psychologists are very interested in measuring and predicting people’s behavior. The social sciences have done a tremendous amount of work in this area, and now biology and other areas of science are looking at how these measures can benefit other areas of study — namely, conservation.

You can make people aware of endangered species, but how do you convince a community to change cultural beliefs and behaviors that lead them to kill and eat those species? Folks might be aware that reducing energy is good for the environment, but how do hotels convince their guests to participate in green programs and services?

In a new white paper funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Mason assistant professors Karen Akerlof, Center for Climate Change Communication, and Chris Kennedy, environmental science and policy, synthesized knowledge from psychology and behavioral economics to develop recommendations for incorporating social science approaches in promotion of the health and well-being of natural ecosystems.

“Information and practices from the social sciences can help inform conservation projects,” says Kennedy. “There has been relatively little application of behavioral change research with respect to habitat, species and natural resource conservation, especially when compared with other fields like public health. If scientists can include such knowledge up front, it might improve conservation outcomes at a lower cost and with less disruption to local communities.”

The pair looks at several case studies and develops some best practices recommendations for incorporating social science into conservation projects.

“To be successful in conserving natural resources and species, we must be able to change the way people behave and think,” says Akerlof. “But of course this is a huge challenge, and often ineffective or even counterproductive. Looking at these problems through a psychological or behavioral economic lens can help provide us with a deeper understanding of the problems.”

Akerlof says that the paper is aimed at global conservation challenges. The researchers are interested in not only how to change people’s attitudes, but how to change their behavior — sometimes a much harder task, Akerlof admits.

“We have to create better policies,” she says. “If you want to reduce crime, it is sometimes more effective to change other things besides just making the laws stronger. The same is true in conservation practices.”

Kennedy and Akerlof recommend that social scientists be involved in projects early on, and that controlled experiments should be included. They also feel that organizations should be encouraged to report on their failures as well as successes.

“Conservation failures may offer more valuable insights than the successful counterparts,” Kennedy says.

Write to Robin Herron at

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