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Can Plant Blindness Be Cured?

In a new review study, researchers examine why people, including conservationists, tend to be biased against plants, and if this bias can be challenged.

By Shreya Dasgupta


If shown a picture of lions on a tree, people are more likely to point out the lions, and ignore the tree. (Photo: Udayan Dasgupta)

Tigers, elephants, and rhinoceroses garner a lot of attention. But plants are often ignored. In fact, scientists even have a term for our tendency to overlook plants — plant blindness.

For example, if shown a picture of a lion on a tree, people would be more likely to point out the lion, and ignore the tree. This bias against plants is widespread, and seriously limits conservation efforts, scientists say.

In the United States, for instance, plants comprise the majority — about 57 percent — of the federal endangered species list, researchers have found. But in 2011, they received less than 3.86 percent of federal endangered species expenditures.

Now, in a new review study published in Conservation Biology, biologists Mung Balding and Kathryn Williams of the University of Melbourne in Australia have examined previous research to understand why this bias against plants exists and if it can be changed.

“The paper brings together research from psychology and anthropology,” Williams told Mongabay. “My expertise is in psychology, so the insights from anthropology were really eye opening for me.”

“Plant blindness is limiting plant conservation, but we can change that by helping people to identify and empathize with plants.”

According to some studies, people’s attraction toward animals may be due to biologically based visual and cognitive processes, the researchers found. In one study, for instance, when students were shown images of unfamiliar animals and plants, they recalled animal images much more than images of plants.

Some scientists have suggested that this bias against plants could be because plants are stationary, grow close together, are often similarly colored, and blend together visually, making it difficult for people to notice them beyond a uniform block of green. Other researchers have posited that people’s attraction toward animals is ancestrally derived. They suggest that as hunter-gatherers, humans have historically detected changes in animals and humans more than plants because they would have had to monitor animals that were either threats or potential food source.

But people’s bias toward animals may not be biologically hard-wired, the researchers found. Some studies have shown that cultural practices may play an important role in shaping people’s relationship with plants. Many indigenous groups, such as aboriginal Australian, native North American, and Maori cultural groups, for example, still have strong bonds with plants around them.

“Our conclusion in the paper is that language and practices within those cultures help people to see, remember, name plants, view them as connected to humans, and ultimately to value plants as part of life,” Williams told Mongabay. “It’s really important for all of us understand how cultures very different from our own relate to plants and animals. Many people in industrialized areas do have strong bonds with plants as well — we see a lot of variation both across and within cultures.”

Plant blindness can be challenged, the researchers say. Programs that encourage children to spot and grow plants early in life, for instance, can help instill a deeper appreciation of plants among them. Similarly, creative activities such as story writing, role playing, and rituals that include anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human-like characters to plants, can help strengthen public appreciation of plants. But the authors warn that use of anthropomorphism could backfire if used incorrectly.

“Anthropomorphism can be negative for conservation if it means people misunderstand plants or consider plants to only be worth protecting if they are ‘human-like,’” Williams said. “But anthropomorphism can also build respect for plants. One way to do that is to ground anthropomorphism in plant knowledge. The ‘human-like’ characteristics of plants — forms of ‘communication,’ kinship, and so on — catch our imagination because we can relate to them. But the very same characteristics of plants inspire wonder precisely because they are so ‘un-human-like’ — the ways plants can communicate are so different from human communication. The two sides of that insight work together to build respect for the intrinsic value of plants.”

Studies also show that high school biology books devote less than 15 percent of their chapters to plants and botanical topics, the authors write. So ensuring that school biology classes give equal space to plant biology, and that textbooks cover recent knowledge developments in plant communication, movement, and other aspects of plant biology could help foster appreciation of plants among children, Williams said.

“Plant blindness is limiting plant conservation, but we can change that by helping people to identify and empathize with plants,” she added.

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.