Environmental Studies Program


Date of this Version

Fall 12-2011


In the late 20th century, neuroscientists in Italy discovered a neuron in the brain capable of mentally mimicking the emotions derived from the actions of others (Rizzolatti and Craighero, 2004). It is the process that makes your elbow ache when someone else knocks their elbow on the counter or the uncontrollable smile that creeps up when someone smiles at you. No questions asked, people intuitively sense what others are feeling. The old school of thought was that humans deduced through logic and reason the actions of others and interpreted the emotions through a rational process (Carew et al, 2008). As neuroscience progresses, they have discovered more and more about how much people rely on their emotions to interact with others and make decisions. The mirror neurons in our brains allow us to make judgments about situations without being completely conscious of them. But when those emotions become conscience, it is often referred to as the act of empathizing with someone or, more simply put, walking in the other person’s shoes.

What could this have to do with conservation? The choices people make to recycle, reduce consumption, and reuse everyday products often comes not because of our rationalization of the activity through scientific fact, but because we are empathizing with someone or something. People have changed their conservation behavior due to feelings for the plight of penguins losing their arctic habitat, someone in another country not having access to the same comforts they enjoy, or a neighbor downstream drinking polluted water. They also choose to abide by the laws of game wardens when hunting to make sure population levels are sustainable and enter into agreements such as the Conservation Reserve Program to make habitat for animals and promote ecosystem health. Regardless of what side of the fence they sit on, people make all sorts of decisions based on emotions, whether they empathize with their future great-grand children or the animals themselves. It seems like common sense that we are, at base, emotional beings.

Most economic theories, however, are not based on such an irrational means of making choices. Those neoclassical economic theories rely on the assumption that we are all rational, self-interested beings that will always act in a way to maximize profit or utility. This is a dangerous assumption since it literally controls the formulas on which the U.S. economy bases growth, price, and prosperity. So if the basic utility curve from microeconomics assumes that a person will act rationally and they act irrationally on emotions, where does that leave us?

Hundreds of millions of dollars each year are dealt out for conservation programs, many of which operate on these same economic assumptions, using direct payments and subsidies as economic trade-offs for best management practices. Perhaps direct payouts aren’t the most efficient way to cultivate conservation practices for everyone. Seemingly the system needs be looked at from an interdisciplinary angle combining what is known of linguistics, psychology, sociology, economics, and environmental science to form a new contextual framework for conservation behavior and policy-making.