Using psychology in Conservation science

By Fabiola Monty, TBA Alumna – Kibale 2010

There is no doubt that contemporary conservation needs to be more than biology, and that it has shifted to include more of the human dimensions. The key role that other fields such as the social sciences and economics play in conservation is being recognized more and more. Despite some oppositions to the anthropocentric approach, we can all agree on one thing (or two): Human actions create the need for conservation and conservation is implemented by humans. Considering that human beings have such a big influence on conservation, understanding human decision-making and behavior can provide important insights for conservation. Which is where psychology can play a role.

The field of Conservation Psychology

Carol D. Saunders first proposed conservation psychology as a new field of study in 2003, defining it as “an applied field that uses psychological principles, theories, or methods to understand and solve issues related to human aspects of conservation”. When introduced it was expected to contribute to environmental sustainability by addressing two main research topics: (1) how humans behave towards nature? And (2) how humans value nature?

Conservation Psychology Research Areas (adapted from Saunders, 2003)
Conservation Psychology Research Areas (adapted from Saunders, 2003)

Attitude studies and psychological frameworks

Over the years there has been a body of research investigating conservation behaviors based on psychological principles. One type of study that has gained particular momentum in conservation research are attitude surveys. Such studies can be useful in evaluating projects’ impacts and contribute knowledge, to design better conservation strategies. However as some reviews have found, many studies that had been conducted are of limited use to conservation. As stated by St John et al.(2011): “Many studies focus on general attitudes towards conservation rather than attitudes towards specific behaviours of relevance to conservation and thus have limited value in designing interventions to change specific behaviours”.

hand-814694_1280 One pitfall is that it is often assumed that attitude is directly linked to behavior. However, though they are related, other factors alongside attitude may determine a specific behavior. For example one may have a positive attitude towards environmental protection. However the personal costs in terms of time and effort and money may prevent that same person from living an environmental-friendly lifestyle so there can be a mismatch between  attitude and actual behavior. For attitude studies to inform management, they need to be able to predict the behavior of interest and psychological principles and frameworks are here useful tools to develop such reliable studies.

5 tips to improve on your attitude study:

  • Base your study on psychological frameworks. While the theory of reasoned action and the theory of planned behavior are popular , there are several other options
  • Do not use one single question to measure attitude
  • Measure attitude towards specific behaviors rather than conservation in general or a specific project
  • Use a mixture of approaches e.g. group discussions, fixed and open-ended questions
  • Include a reliable and valid quantitative measure in the study as the strength of a person’s attitude reflects the level of engagement in pro-conservation behavior


  1. Browne-Nuñez, Christine, & Sandra A. Jonker. 2008.Attitudes toward wildlife and conservation across Africa: a review of survey research. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 13(1), pp.47-70.
  2. Clayton, S., & Myers, G. 2009. Conservation psychology: understanding and promoting human care for nature. John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Kaiser, F. G., & Wilson, M. 2004. Goal-directed conservation behavior: The specific composition of a general performance. Personality and Individual Differences, 36(7), pp.1531-1544.
  4. Kollmuss, A. & Agyeman, J., 2002. Mind the Gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior. Environmental Education Research, 8(3), pp.239–260.
  5. Saunders, C. D. 2003. The emerging field of conservation psychology.Human Ecology Review10(2), pp.137-149.
  6. St John, F. A., Edwards-Jones, G., & Jones, J. P. 2011. Conservation and human behaviour: lessons from social psychology. Wildlife Research, 37(8), pp.658-667.
  7. Schultz, P. 2011. Conservation means behavior.Conservation Biology25(6), pp.1080-1083.


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