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The Individual in a Multi-level Context

A systems approach to understanding the individual in SES views “the brain, body and world in coupled motion” (Hutchins 2010, p. 709). Such an approach requires that the researcher reach across scales and influences in explaining human behavior. It requires the adoption of a broad, inclusive meta-theory but also implies nontraditional types of statistical methods (e.g., hierarchical linear modeling, social network analysis, agent-based modeling) and methodological concerns (e.g., the ecological fallacy). Hutchins (2010) has noted that applying systems approaches to understanding real-life behavior in psychology has been challenging. This is in no small part due to the complexity of humans and the near endless permutations of levels of effects. For those working in conservation, the hierarchy applied in research will depend on the way the problem is defined. Here we briefly overview three broad hierarchical categories that will be useful to consider: within the individual, individual-group, and institutional and structural factors.

Hierarchies Within the Individual

Humans are driven by a variety of interrelated processes, and each has a separate literature and breadth of theories including, for example, theories of needs and motivation, perception, cognition and evaluation, affect and emotion, and learning and memory. We understand just a fraction of how these processes operate together, are formed and adapt people to their social-ecological surroundings. Hierarchical approaches would work toward bridging understanding of the interdependence of these processes and their impact on human judgments, decisions and behavior.

There is little current research in HDNR that takes a hierarchical approach, with one exception – the value-attitude-behavior hierarchy (VAB). VAB research brings together, in hierarchical form, the guiding influence of the more slowly-formed cognitive processes of values (System one) and the more rapid evaluative processes of attitudes (System two). There are a variety of examples of the VAB approach being used in the natural resources arena (e.g., Fulton et al. 1996; Vaske and Donnelly 1999; Hrubes et al. 2001; Oreg and Katz-Gerro 2006; Milfont et al. 2010). An important area for future research will likely explore the contexts in which behavioral response breaks from System one thought patterns (like values in the climate change example above) and information processing takes precedence in defining individual choice.

While VAB and other goal hierarchy approaches became popular in the 1980s, more recent advances reach across various sub-disciplines of psychology, joining self-report cognitive measures with genetic, biological, and physiological measures. The latter have been particularly useful in explaining dual systems models and also supporting evolutionary explanations of human behavior (Goel 2008). As an example of these advancements, Chiao and Blizinsky (2013) provided evidence of the linkage among social-ecological conditions (mental health and disease prevalence), human genetics (serotonin gene transporter), and cultural value types (individualistcollectivist). With data spanning across 29 nations, their research revealed that the Short allele of the 5-HTTLPR was more prevalent in collectivist cultures as an adaptive response to higher levels of disease prevalence. Collectivist cultures and associated customs not only support preventative behavior for disease spread, but they serve to provide social support that mediates the negative emotion and fear avoidance behavior associated with the Short allele 5-HTTLPR.

In another example, Greene et al. (2004) found evidence that personal moral decisions stimulate areas of the brain associated with emotion and social cognition (more primitive responses, available before language) while impersonal moral decisions are related to areas of the brain associated with in-depth processing. Considering its potential to inform future directions in HDNR research, to what extent might this finding be applied to understanding human-wildlife relationships, an area of focus within HDNR? More specifically, as an illustration, to what extent might these different decision paths be associated with mutualism versus domination wildlife value orientations identified in the literature (see Manfredo et al. 2009; Teel and Manfredo 2010)? Moral decisions would typically be those involving humans, but a key difference between those with a mutualism versus domination orientation is that the former views wildlife as family or companions, deserving of rights like humans, while the latter “de-personizes” wildlife. It would be reasonable to pursue the explanation that differences between the value orientation types on judgments about wildlife treatment are rooted in the two different cognitive systems examined by Greene et al. (2004).

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