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Human Thought as Dynamic and Adaptive

Growing threats such as climate change and desertification have prompted concerns about the human ability to anticipate, adapt, and alter behavior to avoid undesirable results. Certainly, history shows that humans are remarkably adaptive. This adaptive success is attributed to our ability to create culture, accumulate knowledge and transmit that across generations. It is the cognitive processes of the human mind that create outcomes such as technological advances, social collaboration, and institutional invention that generate effective adaptive success. The view from evolutionary psychology would propose that our cognitive systems and fundamental cognitions such as values are critical mechanisms for adapting to our social and ecological surroundings. Even a simple depiction of the dynamic and adaptive nature of thought processes, as we present here, can have meaningful implications for SES modeling.

Dual Adaptive Systems in Humans

Theory suggests there are two separate systems that drive human thought and behavior (Evans and Stanovich 2013). System one evolved early in humans, and responses stemming from it tend to be automatic, fast and intuitive, and nonconscious. System two evolved more recently, and response is slow, requiring working memory and the deliberation of existing knowledge. The first system is developed gradually over time through the process of associative learning, repeat experience, and trial and error. This system accumulates an individual's learning into quick response mechanisms. Given the cumulative process, a single incident is unlikely to have a big effect on the responses of System one; further, the more incidents accumulated, the less likely change is to occur. As a consequence, a significant amount of foundational associative learning occurs in one's early years of life. System one gives a person instantaneous response to a constantly-changing surrounding. For a given motivational or goal state, this system shapes subconscious perception of the environment and its opportunities and dangers. It drives the automatic course of action in a fluid and “online” manner.

System two is based on semantic or symbols-based learning, storage of information, recall and deliberation in new and novel ways. System two is used episodically as needed when a response situation rises to a conscious level. Information that is drawn from the environment and processed with information from memory to anticipate consequences of response can be stored for retrieval at a later time. System two processing is considered slow in the sense that it requires considerable cognitive effort and time to reach a conclusion. While it is slow in that sense, it is fast in its ability to change and adapt to new situations. For example, where a new incident is unlikely to affect System one processing, new information can readily change an attitudinal and behavioral response borne from System two.

System one is obviously not independent of System two. The foundational aspects of perception, assumptions, and evaluation shape our awareness, understanding, and acceptance of new information. Yet, the two systems are believed to sometimes act in conflict with one another in difficult decision choices (e.g., when a person carefully analyzes pros and cons and has a gut feeling different from the result of that critical analysis). Evidence for the dual systems approach, and the conflict between systems that may arise, is supported by studies that show different areas of the brain are active when different systems are engaged (Goel 2008).

How can the dual systems view be useful in SES? These two systems paint a complex picture of human ability to adapt. On the one hand, System one facilitates continuity and predictability. It is the essence of cultural transmission by which customs, practices and meanings are carried through generations. System two prepares humans for abrupt and sudden changes in their surroundings. It allows people to quickly (relative to the effect of information on System one) assimilate information, weigh it against information stored in memory and develop a response to maximize positive outcomes.

A few examples reveal ways that the dual systems model brings perspectives to conservation problems. Recent articles have indicated that in order to attain social and ecological sustainability, human values and subsequent behavior must change (Burns 2012; Ehrlich and Kennedy 2005; Karp 1996; Vlek and Steg 2007). In some cases, initiatives have been undertaken to change human values. These initiatives will likely face an inordinate challenge, particularly with attempts at traditional rational appeal. As proposed by Kitayama and Uskul (2011), values are not entities but the “water we swim in”. They are learned through slow processes of associative learning and reinforced by more explicit, System two learning. Values arise gradually through the continued repetition of cultural practices, stories and myths, beliefs and meanings. They are not merely learned, but are “embrained”, or integrated within the mental processes controlled by the brain, and evidence is emerging that suggests there is a genetic basis for such culturally-delineated patterns.

Recent findings exemplify how the long-term durability of values might affect conservation. Manfredo et al. (2013) provide data indicating that Americans' wildlife value orientations can be traced to their ancestry, or country of origin, with shifts in thought patterns occurring slowly as states in the U.S. become more modernized. This view casts doubt on the ability to engineer an effect on cultural values and transfers attention to the key question of how values adapt (and at what rate) to a rapidly changing world. That is, when there is significant interruption in surrounding life circumstances, such as warfare, massive environmental change or migration, how do values affect the adaptation process?

In another example, Weber (2006, 2010) explains that the slow acceptance of climate change may be related to the general lack of personal experience (climate events) that would inform the associative system of risk and produce negative evaluations or feelings such as fear that motivate action. In other words, System one's intuitive influence contrasts with the deliberative process of System two on climate change response. Simply providing more facts will not change the situation. Research by Kahan et al. (2011) offers support for this explanation. Scientific literacy, according to their findings, had minimal influence on perceptions of climate change in America, whereas cultural value effects were strong and guided people's assessment of the credibility of climate change information (suggesting a strong System one influence).

A final example comes from the study of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), which encompasses empirical knowledge of natural resources, resource management systems, social institutions that guide management, and worldviews that provide meaning to the role of humans in ecosystems (Berkes 1999). TEK is far more than factual information learned cognitively (System two). It is also a cumulative knowledge system transmitted across generations through associative learning and System one processes. An increasing body of evidence demonstrates that TEK is adapted by each generation and supplemented as new information becomes available through individual and group experiences with resource management (Berkes et al. 2000). In other words, TEK can be thought of as a cultural system and not merely as a body of cognitive information.

We conclude this section by proposing that whether or not the dual systems approach is applied, theoretical approaches and problem statements in SES research should emphasize the dynamic, adaptive nature of human thought. In doing so, research should explore alternative methods to the conventional interview or survey response methodology. This change will undoubtedly be challenging given that research sponsors often request traditional survey methods, HDNR researchers are trained primarily in these methods, and the availability of alternatives is somewhat limited. However, alternatives do exist, and recent examples illustrate the potential of experimental approaches (e.g., game theory), cognitive ability and styles tests, implicit attitude tests, longitudinal studies, and physiological and brain imaging measures.

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