Plant awareness disparity

"I don’t notice plants in my environment, and I don’t recognize their importance. I think they are inferior to animals."

Definition

Plant awareness disparity refers to our inability to notice plants in our environment and to recognize their importance to the ecosystem. This indifference is often accompanied by the belief that plants are inferior to animals [1]. The plant awareness disparity bias is often studied in this context: by highlighting the fact that we pay less attention to plants than to animals. Claims about this bias are somewhat speculative, because little experimental research has been done to confirm its existence.


This bias is less evident in certain cultures. For example, among certain indigenous peoples, namely in Australia and North America, many individuals have a strong and non-hierarchical link to plants [4], which lessens the strength of the bias.

Example

Dandelions occupy an important place in our ecosystem. They are one of the most important sources of food for pollinating insects, and play a major role in honey production and insect survival. The fate of human beings is tightly linked to that of pollinating insects, and thus also to that of dandelions. Nonetheless, we consider dandelions to be weeds and we do our best to eliminate them from our gardens. We judge them aesthetically but fail to recognize their importance to the ecosystem.

Explanation

To begin with, it is difficult to distinguish individual plants in our field of vision. They don’t move, they have more or less uniform colours and are often very close together [1]. We perceive them differently from the way we see animals, which makes it more difficult to distinguish them in the environment [3]. During the era of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, it would have been more important to easily notice and to pay attention to animals, in order to protect oneself from danger and to hunt them. According to this evolutionary explanation, our faster and more accurate identification of animals was better adapted to survival than the quick identification of plants [4]. Humans who identified animals quickly had a better chance of surviving, and were therefore more likely to transmit their genes to the next generation.


Cultural and social explanations can complete this adaptive hypothesis. For instance, during childhood our education focuses strongly on animals. Concentration on the study of animals rather than plants is known as “zoochauvinism” [2].

Consequences

For several decades the world has been undergoing extensive and rapid deforestation, causing extreme loss of plant biodiversity. These losses cause important greenhouse gas emission and thus contribute to global warming [5]. Protecting the environment and the plants within it is a worldwide ecological emergency. By ignoring and undervaluing plants in the ecosystem, we neglect to protect them. Plant awareness disparity can have disastrous consequences by making us unaware of the necessity to preserve plants.

Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias

  • It is important to improve the study of plants in the educational settings, but that is not enough. It is also necessary to learn the mechanisms and implications of the bias, be they cultural (ignorance of the usefulness of plants and belief in the superiority of animals), or psychological (differing perception of animals and plants) [3].

  • We need to be in contact with nature to develop our understanding of the world of plants. Outdoor education programs have a positive effect on the appreciation of plants by students [5]. It would therefore be beneficial to create programs in schools to increase contact with nature and biodiversity.

  • With students and the general public, the similarities among plants and humans (being alive, intentional movement, procreation, etc.) must be emphasised. In fact, among social groups who have a strong affinity to plants, the relationship is often created by observation of the common characteristics of plants and humans [4].

How is this bias measured?

The plant awareness disparity bias is measured in several ways by researchers. The image detection test is often used by those who wish to measure this bias. A sequence of images of plants or animals is presented to participants. After performing a task meant to distract them, participants are presented with the images for a second time and they are asked to identify those they had seen previously. If the images of animals are recalled significantly more often than those of plants, it suggests that the plant awareness disparity bias is involved [4].

This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:

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This bias has social or individual repercussions:

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This bias is empirically demonstrated:

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References

[1] James H. Wandersee & Elisabeth E. Schussler (1999). Preventing plant blindness. The American Biology Teacher, 61(2), 82-86.


[2] David R. Hershey (1996). A historical perspective on problems in botany teaching. The American Biology Teacher, 58(6), 340-347.


[3] Benjamin Balas & Jennifer L. Momsen (2014). Attention "blinks" differently for plants and animals. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 437-443.


[4] Mung Balding & Kathryn Williams (2016). Plant blindness and the implications for plant conservation. Conservation Biology, 30(6), 1192-1199.


[5] Jana Fančovičová & Pavol Prokop (2011). Plants have a chance: outdoor educational programs alter students’ knowledge and attitudes towards plants. Environmental Education Research, 17(4), 537-551.

Tags

Individual level, Representativeness heuristic, Need for cognitive closure

Related biases

  • Zoocentrism

  • Zoochauvinism

Synonymes 

  • Botanical blindness

Author

Louison Gros, Psychology License, Savoie-Mont-Blanc University. 

Translated from French to English by Katherine McClintock.

How to cite this entry

Gros, L. (2021). Plant blindness, trans. K. McClintock. In E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 3. Online : www.shortcogs.com

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