The brain’s emotional circuits can powerfully influence environmental decisions, according to a new study. This suggests that emotional appeals may motivate environmental protection more than data-intensive arguments.

Does this offer a new approach to promoting sustainable decisions?

With natural resources under increasing threat from both human development and climate change, environmental economists have struggled to understand how the public assigns value to remaining pristine wilderness areas.

In the recent study, published in NeuroImage, environmental scientists and psychologists used fMRI brain scanning to explore how people make environmental decisions.

Lead author Nik Sawe, a PhD candidate at Stanford School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, along with associate professor of psychology Brian Knutson, wanted to better understand how people value the environment, and what types of thoughts or feelings promote valuation of these natural resources.

To answer this question, Sawe and Knutson scanned the brains of 20 participants as they decided whether to donate money to prevent proposed environmental threats to state and national parks.

Images of destruction

Viewing images of iconic parks such as Yosemite activated participants’ nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain’s reward pathway that tends to respond to enjoyable experiences, such as good food, music, or financial gain.

beach pollution

But viewing images of increasingly destructive proposed land uses activated the anterior insula, which tends to anticipate negative experiences, like the loss of money or physical pain. Activity in this part of the brain predicted that subjects would donate more money to protect the parks.

“Although people felt positive emotions toward iconic parks, their willingness to donate was really driven by the negative emotions they felt toward the proposed destructive actions of a third party,” Sawe says.

This desire to protect endangered wilderness areas seemed to drive people’s willingness to donate. “This finding suggests that people were basing their valuations on the amount of outrage they felt toward damaging land uses, rather than their positive responses to the places themselves,” says Knutson.

Negative emotions

Using neuroimaging, Sawe and Knutson were able to decipher how different brain processes influence environmental decisions. “We could predict people’s choices based on their neural activity, which revealed that emotional reactions may compete with cognitive cost-benefit analyses when people decide whether to donate to protect the environment,” Knutson says.

Environmental decision-making may be unique due to this influence of negative emotions. The influence suggests that environmental philanthropy is driven by different factors than other charitable causes. “The value we derive from the natural world may be clearest only when that world is threatened,” Sawe says.

The study marks a first step in using neuroscience to help understand individuals’ pro-environmental motivations. Sawe and Knutson are collaborating on further studies of the neuroscience behind environmental decision-making, searching for new ways to motivate more sustainable decisions.


This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Dan Stober-Stanford University
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