National, 29th June 2022: New research from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington has found a way to combat the psychological phenomena known as ‘plant blindness’—a discovery which could help improve conservation outcomes for endangered plant species across the world.
‘Plant blindness’ refers to the way humans under-prioritise some elements of their natural environment. When observing their environment, humans pay more attention to other animals or moving objects—anything a human might have to react to. Because plants rarely fall into this category, humans often ignore plants unless they are deliberately searching for them.
“Previous research has shown that plant blindness impacts everything from what information is included in scientific textbooks to which research proposals receive funding. This phenomena has more impact than just affecting how humans observe their environment when they are out for a walk,” says PhD student Giovanni Zani from the University’s School of Psychology.
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When it comes to conservation, there is evidence to show that animals―especially cute ones―often receive more funding and attention than plants. Plants that do get funding and attention are also often the prettier or more attention-grabbing plants, which can cause problems for many of Aotearoa New Zealand’s native plants, which are not always as eye-catching.
Giovanni and Dr Low’s research has found a way to counter the effect of plant blindness.
“We used a technique called priming to help people pay attention to plants,” Giovanni says. “We tried verbal priming at first—telling people about plants before showing them a series of images, and then testing to see if they recalled plants or other objects in the images—but that wasn’t successful.”
“We then tried visually priming the people involved in our study. We showed them a series of images where an image of a plant was the odd one out amongst images of non-living things. We then asked the people involved to view a series of images and then recall what they had seen in the images. This visual priming was a success, and the people involved were much more likely to remember plants from the series of images.”
This experiment suggests that plant blindness can be countered, the authors say. This gives some hope that more attention can be directed to plants, thus providing them with more conservation support.
There is still plenty of work to be done in this area, however. Giovanni and Dr Low were not able to test how long the priming lasted, but other research on priming suggests that the effect can be short-lived.
“We don’t think solving plant blindness is a simple matter of constantly showing people pictures of plants, especially when it comes to complex matters like combatting the effects of climate change, which involves emotions, ideologies, and many different actions. But being exposed to more plants is one factor in addressing the amount of attention and support plants get—just doing this research project has made us much more aware of plants and more likely to think about them.”
“This study reassures us that plant blindness can be addressed, even if we need to do further work on a permanent solution,” Dr Low says.
As well as finding out how permanent the priming effect is, Giovanni and Dr Low would also like to do more research with different demographic and cultural groups to see if plant blindness is equally present and if it can be combatted in the same way.
“Sometimes we treat plants like immobile and unchangeable objects that won’t move or go anywhere—like they are décor—and so we don’t think they will disappear permanently, but they could if we don’t pay enough attention to them,” Giovanni says.
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