Most Humans Are Blind To Plants

September 2, 2016

If nature-lovers and conservationists must fight for attention in a society where far more people recognize Kim Kardashian than a pileated woodpecker, imagine what it’s like for devotees of plants.

Compared to plants, animals receive far more attention. Except for a some garden-popular flowers and vegetables, and perhaps a few trees, most people barely notice them. Conservation efforts are devoted overwhelmingly to animals; compared to the hundreds of plant species easily found but mostly overlooked in our environs, those woodpeckers practically are Kim Kardashian.

There’s even a formal name for this: plant blindness. And in a study published in the journal Conservation Biology, biologists Kathryn Williams and Mung Balding of Australia’s University of Melbourne ask whether it’s inevitable: Are people hard-wired by evolution to ignore the vegetal world? Can something be done about it?

“We are absolutely dependent on plants for life and health, but so often they fade into the background and miss out in the direct actions we take to protect our planet,” says Williams. “I wonder how the world would look if more people, instead of seeing a wall of green, saw individual plants as potential medicine, a source of food, or a loved part of their community.”

Balding and Williams review research on plant blindness, both at the biological and policy levels. Plants comprise 57 percent of endangered species in the United States, yet receive less than 4 percent of endangered species funding; plant science programs dwindle. Multiple studies have found that people are automatically drawn to images of animals rather than plants, and more readily recognize and remember them.

These tendencies are evident even in young children and seem rooted in visual processes that are innately calibrated to notice motion. Some scientists think this reflects the predisposition of cognitive systems honed by evolution to focus on animals. After all, throughout evolutionary history, animals have posed far more immediate threats or benefits than plants. We are, perhaps, literally born to see them.

Yet as Balding and Williams also point out, there’s a cultural aspect to this. If people in industrialized societies don’t usually notice plants, examples abound of indigenous traditions steeped in plant lore, with as much attention paid to the floral world as the faunal. There is “evidence of general perceptual biases for animals compared with plants,” write Balding and Williams, but “such bias is not inevitable.” Evolutionary biology is not destiny.

How, though, to foster an appreciation of plants in non-indigenous societies? To, as Williams puts it, “help people move away from seeing plants just as green background”? She and Balding appeal to psychological research describing how people who are encouraged to empathize with and even anthropomorphize plants are more likely to appreciate them.

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