Nature has to be more than our labels

Some people are more connected to nature than others. We know that most people don’t notice nature, but what do they think about nature? A couple of recent research studies give some insight into this question. And their findings help confirm what we know about how to improve the human-nature relationship. As we know, a closer relationship with nature is essential for both human and nature’s wellbeing.

The first paper by Melissa Hatty and colleagues examined people’s concepts of nature through looking at the language they used. They found the responses fell into three themes. The first was the use of descriptive language such as descriptions of animals, plants and landscapes. 73% of responses were of this type. The second theme was the ‘normative language’ often used by experts, terms to do with conservation and biodiversity for example. Less than 2% of people used these types of terms. The third theme was experiential language, language to do with activities in nature, positive emotions and feelings. These accounted for just 3.5% of responses. Around 19% of people used language from two or more categories.

So how did this relate to nature connectedness? Those people with higher levels of nature connectedness used more experiential terms, or terms from more than one group. People who described nature in simple descriptive terms had lower nature connectedness scores.

So, it’s rather concerning that most people think of nature in simple descriptive terms. There is little sign that people think about nature in the emotional terms that create a closer relationship and bring mental wellbeing. This reflects how we’re schooled to think about the world. In typologies, processes, and the labels of the various parts of nature.

Teaching facts, figures and information is also a popular approach to engaging people with nature, but research has shown this tends not to be the best way to improve nature connectedness. It is thought that the usual approach of transmitting knowledge suppresses emotional content. When people understand through facts and figures they become primary. Emotions become secondary. More positively, getting people to write about nature using emotional language leads to increases in nature connectedness – and mental health.

This knowledge-based approach together with the extinction of nature experience could well explain the second recent paper about how people think about nature. This research explored urban dwellers ‘mental models’. Mental models are the conceptualisation people have about the real world. This research found that people living in an urban environment had a more simplistic understanding of nature – the complex interrelationships between nature and humans. This limited their ability to live in harmony with nature.

In sum, the two studies show that being disconnected from nature is linked to simplistic thinking about nature. With simplistic thinking about nature leading to fewer pro-nature behaviours. Sadly, the simplistic descriptive thinking was found in the majority of people.


Hatty, M. A., Goodwin, D., Smith, L. D. G., & Mavondo, F. (2022, May 12). Speaking of nature: Relationships between how people think about, connect with, and act to protect nature.

Aminpour, P., Gray, S. A., Beck, M. W., Furman, K. L., Tsakiri, I., Gittman, R. K., … & Scyphers, S. B. (2022). Urbanized knowledge syndrome—erosion of diversity and systems thinking in urbanites’ mental models. npj Urban Sustainability, 2(1), 1-10.


About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
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