DIVERSITAS: What Is Psychology’s Role?

BIODIVERSITY: The variability among living organisms on several levels, including genetic variability within and among species, the variety of species within a region, and the distribution of species within ecosystems.DIVERSITAS: An international program of scientific research established to promote and catalyze knowledge about biodiversity.

PSYCHOLOGY: A discipline that can contribute to the understanding of the human dimension of biodiversity, including the ways in which human behavior affects the natural environment in both destructive and constructive ways.

For most readers of the Observer, biodiversity (defined at right) is not a subject of daily professional discourse and DIVERSITAS is an unfamiliar string of letters. Such was my state when I was invited to join a group called the U.S. National Committee for DIVERSITAS. In writing this column, I want to provide some information about the purpose and activities of this committee, and to ask APS members to give me information and suggestions that I can contribute to the committee’s operations.Bear with me while I describe some organizational background. There are several layers involved, as befits the global nature of issues relating to biodiversity and the range of participants. DIVERSITAS, created in 1991, is international in its inception. The major goal of this program is “to promote and catalyze knowledge about biodiversity” around the world. (For more details on the background of this program, you can check out their website: www.icsu.org/DIVERSITAS.) Initial sponsors included the International Council for Science, the International Union for Biological Sciences, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In the United States, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is the representative body for the International Council for Science, and is responsible for developing the U.S. interests and representation in the global biodiversity program. Under the auspices of NAS, a number of national committees (or USNCs, as they are known) represent and advance the interests of the U.S. scientific community on the world stage. Typically, each scientific discipline has such a committee. Within the social and behavioral sciences, for example, anthropology, geography, and psychology each have their own national committee. For psychology, there is a 10-person USNC, currently co-chaired by APS Fellow Anne Treisman and Charles Spielberger. (As of July 1, 2001, Deaux and former APS Secretary and Treasurer Milton D. Hakel will co-chair the committee.) As with other disciplines, the function of psychology’s national committee is to represent U.S. science on the world stage, build links to other national scientific communities and develop projects that can benefit the larger scientific community.

In forming a DIVERSITAS committee, the National Academy turned first to the national committees in obvious core constituencies such as biology, microbiology, and ecology. More recently, the need to have behavioral and social scientists contribute to these efforts was recognized and new members were added to the original committee; one each from the national committees in psychology, anthropology, and geography.

That’s where I came in. As a member of psychology’s USNC, and as a social psychologist who might be able to link to some of the human concerns that underlie human choices related to biodiversity, I was asked to serve on the USNC/DIVERSITAS committee for the next three years. The assignment is a challenging one: My background does not include much training in biology, and the activities of this program were unknown to me before I attended my first meeting. Further, as latecomers to the process, all of us who represent the social sciences are faced with the task of catching up to the train that has already been chugging along, developing its own momentum, agenda, and set of assumptions about what the goals and the language of the program will be.

Given this background, what is the potential role for social and behavioral scientists? As in other areas such as health, we begin with the recognition that many biological outcomes need to be recognized as the outcome of human choice.

As Stuart Oskamp, an APS Fellow and Charter Member, stated in a recent analysis, environmental problems “are all caused by human behavior, and they can all be reversed by human behavior” (2000, p. 375). In some respects, this statement may be too optimistic when applied to biodiversity. Many, many species and subspecies have already disappeared from the earth, due to the destruction of tropical rain forests, for example, and these species are unlikely to reemerge.

At the same time, there is no question that the analysis of human choice and action and the design of appropriate interventions can change trends that promise further destruction. We need to know more about the beliefs and values that people hold with respect to their environment. We need to know more about the carrots and sticks, the incentives and fears, that affect decision making and that can be used to alter non-productive behaviors. And we need to know more about the role that group norms, superordinate goals, and commitment to the larger community can play in this domain.

In many cases, psychologists already know a great deal about the basic processes that undoubtedly are relevant to the concerns of biodiversity. However, relatively few people in our discipline have directed their efforts toward linking these basic understandings to the specific problem at hand. It is my hope that in the work of the USNC, some of these links can be encouraged; that the knowledge we already have can be brought to bear and that new projects can be developed that will advance our understanding and our contributions to the program of DIVERSITAS.

For me to contribute to this effort in my service on the committee, it would be very helpful if I could learn more from those who are already working on related problems. Many areas of research, such as the perception of risk, the identification of environmentally relevant values, and the development of commitment to community goals, could be relevant to the work of the committee in the future.

If you have already been working in these areas or have been thinking about the connections between psychology and biodiversity, I would like to hear from you, so that I could call on your expertise in the future as programs develop. Please feel free to contact me, either by email at kdeaux@gc.cuny.edu or by regular mail (Kay Deaux, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10016). Psychology’s voice needs to be heard in these discussions, and I will be relying on our broad community to provide me with the script.

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