Are you more likely to pick up pieces of trash on your favorite beach? Does litter on your favorite hiking trail make you particularly upset? If so, you’re not alone. Researchers from Cornell University found that people are more likely to become environmental stewards of public land that they feel personally connected to.
The researchers designed their project to study the phenomenon of “psychological ownership.” This term describes the sense of ownership and responsibility we feel over things that we do not officially own. This can happen with a dream house you haven’t bought yet or in the case of nature, the public lands we love.
In their study, the researchers first went to a lake in Wisconsin where they asked some kayakers to think of a nickname for the lake before they went out for a paddle. They found that those who picked a nickname for the lake picked up floating trash they found 41 percent of the time compared to everyone else who picked up trash only seven percent of the time.
Again in a cross-country skiing park, researchers asked some skiers to plan out their route through the park before departing. The simple act of planning out a route and studying the land more than doubled the likelihood that visitors tacked on a donation to their skiing fee or offered to volunteer in the park.
In the last part of their study, researchers found that putting “Welcome” signs at the entrance of parks also increased positive environmental behavior, while signs indicating the number of daily visitors had the opposite effect.
Even if you didn’t realize it, you’ve probably been swayed by psychological ownership yourself. The “Smokey the Bear” campaign to prevent wildfires is one example that employs both a lovable character and the phrase “only you can prevent wildfires” to trigger a sense of psychological ownership over wildfire-prone parks. This is also why conservationists tend to name specific animals they are trying to protect and why local governments use public input when naming new parks.
Encouraging visitors to form a personal connection to public lands and develop a sense of responsibility for the future of the space is highly effective for maintaining public areas. This research shows that simple steps to promote a deeper connection between visitors and natural spaces can help reduce damaging behaviors like littering and erosion, especially at popular destinations, and keep these spaces beautiful for future generations.