Cognitive Science and Conservation

This area has received my attention during the past few months, ever since I was involved in designing a new postgraduate course on conservation futures in India where my intention was to develop a unique conservation course focusing on the core of cognitive science as a base.

I was fascinated to read an article by LeGard (2004) where he compares the works of two behavioural, cognitive scientists – Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934).

Let me first explain the works of both Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky before connecting commenting on how cognitive science can help shape our conservation action and what needs to be done to ensure conservation is better achieved using conservation psychology.

According to LeGard, Piaget suggested that cognitive development is a continuous progression of complimentary processes leading to adaptation. In Piaget’ s schema, knowledge is constructed progressively through a series of mental operations or behavioural sequences that children accumulate and assimilate. Vygotsky, while agreeing with Piaget regarding the constructive nature of intellectual development, suggests that cognitive development occurs within a social context. Thinking happens through social interaction that is passed on to new generations.

Comparing the constructivist theories reveals that socio-cultural aspects helps better cognitive development.

Very relevant arguments, indeed.

Let us now focus on the issue of conservation and cognitive science.

Before we get into the details, we need to also understand the concept of heuristics and how our brain responds to impulses – both direct and indirect. Today heuristics is critical to deal with conservation action where people learn by discovering things than by telling them what to do. The behavioural aspect of conservation need more attention than ever before.

For this, cognitive neuroscience, design thinking and behavioural economics are all necessary to be integrated into our conservation planning and actions.

Conservation decisions today are based on our consciousness. Our brains ability to process conscious information is slow, information-driven and elaborate in its processing while the non-conscious information works more on intuition and instinct. It is this part of the brain that plays a key role in our behaviour and decision making.

We need to mainstream design-thinking in conservation action. Examples such as the way stairs and escalators constructed in malls, the way bars are constructed, the manner in which community common spaces operate, all are based on design thinking that is still to be appropriately explored in designing messaging and action for conservation.

Though we have adopted increasing awareness on biological diversity as the first of our twenty global biodiversity targets, indications are that people are still not aware of this huge, renewable asset. All the studies on economic contributions of biodiversity and ecosystem services are still not finding a place in the reading list of finance and planning ministries – both in developed and developing world.

If we wish to make some progressive moves in conservation action using the triple bottom-line of cognitive science, design-thinking and behavioural economics, we need to focus on the following at the minimum.

  • Let the discussions, negotiations and setting up the new Strategic Plan for biodiversity (2021-2030) focus on the role and relevance of cognitive science rather than ease of communication;
  • With proven success (including a Nobel Prize) for using behavioural economics, aim to link conservation economics and finance with the principles of behavioural economics demonstrating to people where it hurts not to focus on conservation action;
  • Use design thinking options when developing and deciding on new conservation action plans; and
  • Develop a stronger research focus and organize more discussions on mainstreaming issues of conservation psychology as a key element of bringing about change to local, national and global decision-making on conservation.

2 thoughts on “Cognitive Science and Conservation”

  1. What a wonderful article, and, so true. Yes, the behavioural aspect of conservation need more attention than ever before.

  2. Your ability to synthesis seemingly distant points and themes is really amazing. Management experts say this is the most crucial skill needed for Leaders. Greeeeeeeeeeaaaaat!

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