Turn away from your computer screen for a moment and try to remember what you saw in the image below.
The image has an equal number of plants and animals, but chances are that you remembered more animals than plants. This bias in memory is part of a phenomenon known as “plant blindness”. Research shows that people are also generally more interested in animals than plants, and find it harder to detect images of plants compared with images of animals.
Plant blindness is more than an interesting quirk of human perception. It impacts on our efforts to care for and understand plant species. Figures from the United States show that while most federal endangered species (57%) are plants, less than 4% of money spent on threatened species is used to protect plants. Botanical education has been declared under threat in the UK.
In a recent essay, Mung Balding and I argue that overcoming plant blindness requires more than plant education. Instead we need to help people connect with plants emotionally.
Why does it happen?
We aren’t sure why plant blindness occurs. One theory suggests that because plants generally grow close together, do not move and often blend together visually, they often go unnoticed when animals are present.
Another possibility is that we learn plant blindness. For example, biology textbooks give much less space to plants compared with animals, potentially leaving schoolchildren with the impression that plants don’t matter.
But we also know many societies have strong bonds with plants. Among some Aboriginal Australian, Native North American and Maori communities, plants are understood to be different from humans but also to share a common ancestry that brings kinship relationships of mutual responsibility.
Overall, research suggests that while plant blindness is common, it is not inevitable. Here are three strategies that we believe could make a difference.
Identify with plants
Plants can seem very different from humans. Research has shown that animal conservation support is biased towards species that are most like humans.
Unlike humans and many other animals, plants don’t have faces, don’t usually move locations and don’t seem to have feelings. One way to start valuing plants is to notice ways that we actually are alike.
Science can help us see how plants have similarities with humans. Plants are alive, have sex, communicate and take up food. Some young plants share the root system of their parent plant – a “protective” behaviour that many human parents will recognise.
Rituals are another way of identifying with plants. For example, for people living on the island of Nusa Penida near Bali, the coconut palm is an important plant. Early in a child’s life, the father will plant a tree for the child. The tree’s development and life span then parallels the child’s and in ceremonies it is clothed and presented with food.
Empathy with plants
Actively imagining the experiences of plants and animals is another way people can connect with plants. In a psychological experiment, participants were shown images of either a dead bird on a beach, covered in oil, or a group of trees that had been cut down.
Half the participants were told to view the image objectively, while the rest were asked to imagine how the bird or tree felt. The researchers found that people who actively empathised with the bird or tree not only expressed greater concern but also donated more money to protecting the species.
Art, imagination and ritual can all help people to imaginatively empathise with plants. So too can tending plants, as one experiences the joys and sorrows of plant life and death.
Make plants human
A third – and more controversial – way to connect with plants is through anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism means attributing human characteristics to plants, like describing a drooping plant as sad, or a sunflower as turning its face toward the sun.
Anthropomorphism of animals is common in entertainment and conservation campaigns but rarely used for plants. Some writers consider anthropomorphism to be unhelpful: it can misdirect thinking about plants, or sentimentalise plants in ways that belittle them. But experiments show that making or reading anthropomorphic pictures and stories can also help people to empathise with nature and want to act to protect nature.
Want to test this out for yourself? Try a thought experiment by watching this 1932 animation from Walt Disney. The dancing, courting and fighting trees are rather bewildering, but do you feel a twinge of anxiety when the trees are threatened by fire, or relief as the woodland recovers?
Plant conservationists view plants as having value in their own right, so it might seem odd to suggest that we promote plant conservation by thinking about the ways plants are like humans. The strategies we suggest draw on theory that proposes that people are more likely to act in the interests of nature if we think about nature as being part of us. Appreciating our connections with plants may be the best way to begin respecting their amazing differences.
This article was written with Mung Balding, a graduate of the University of Melbourne’s Master of Environment program.