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Understanding feedbacks between mindset and the environment

This article introduces the concept of feedback through vicious and virtuous cycles.
person on a hillside covered by meadow
© University of Reading

During this course, we’ve argued strongly for the importance of focussing on deeper solutions to tackle the environmental crisis. The ‘iceberg model’ in Step 1.5 showed that ‘events’ in the world result from large-scale and long-term ‘patterns’, which are in turn underpinned by aspects of human ‘mindsets and culture’. For example, the destruction of species’ habitats in a particular location reflects larger global patterns of habitat loss as natural spaces are converted to intensive agricultural land. This, in turn, reflects a culture of intensive food production to meet the demands of a wasteful consumer society obtaining food at the lowest possible price, regardless of the consequences on the environment.

We humans have a number of cognitive biases, some of which might explain our inability to see some of these deeper relationships. One particular limitation in our thinking is that we tend to see the world as a set of fixed and separate entities, forgetting about the relationships between them which are often much more dynamic than we imagine. When we consider a change, we often fall into the trap of thinking in a very linear way about causality. For example: factor A causes factor B, which causes factor C. However, causality is often much more complex than this and involves feedback processes. For example, factor C isn’t the end of the matter, it also influences factor A.

Let’s look at an example where the iceberg model can be further refined to include feedback processes between the ‘events’ in the world and our underpinning ‘mindsets and culture’.

Vicious cycles

Vicious cycles are feedback processes where a self-reinforcing feedback loop makes a negative state persist or worsen. These feedback loops are well known in social systems (eg, poverty traps and cycles of alcoholism and depression) and are becoming familiar in ecological systems too, (eg, how climate change both causes and is itself exacerbated by ice sheets melting and forests dying back). Less well known are the hidden vicious cycles that link social and ecological systems together. One in particular – human self-identity – is implicated in a vicious cycle of environmental decline, which may help explain why previously attempted solutions to the biodiversity and climate crisis have been ineffective.

Self-identity is the integrated image someone has of themselves and is determined by a complex interplay of social context and individual history. There is large amount of variation between people. At one end of the spectrum is a highly individualistic self-identity – a very strong sense of ego, seeing yourself as discrete from others and the natural world. At the other is a highly connected self-identity – a sense of overlap and connection with others and the natural world. Researchers use questionnaires to assess individuals and discover where they sit within this spectrum and have described the sense of connection with others as ‘social connectedness’1 and with the natural world as ‘nature connectedness’2. You’ll have a chance to take part in a similar survey later this Week.

Research in environmental psychology shows that people with lower nature connectedness carried out fewer behaviours to improve the environment3. They are less likely to recycle, actively reduce their carbon footprint or volunteer for environmental organisations. The lack of action results in nature being less protected, meaning that plants and wildlife disappear from around our towns and cities4. As a consequence, people living in urban areas have less opportunity to engage with nature, which has an effect on their self-identity, reducing their sense of nature connectedness, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Living in highly urbanised environments tends to reduce our sense of nature connection, while spending time experiencing nature enhances it5. So, self-identity and environmental quality seem to change in tandem in societies, in this case causing in a worrying spiral of decline6.

Turning things around

This vicious cycle is affecting societies in many countries, causing growing disconnection to nature7. But there are mechanisms by which these trends can be reversed. Expanding our sense of self-identity to include others and the natural world creates an attitude of care and responsibility8. The actions that follow lead to nature improvement such as, for example, restoring plants and wildlife in urban areas. This creates more opportunities to engage with nature, further enhancing a sense of nature connectedness (incidentally, increasing peoples’ systems thinking capacity too9). So, instead of a vicious cycle, we can turn things around to create a ‘virtuous cycle’ of human-nature restoration.

The vicious or virtuous cycles that involve elements of self-identity, nature connection and environmental quality

The first step in turning things around is to acknowledge the dynamic feedback processes at play in our social and ecological systems. When we understand these better, we can develop interventions. Enhancing nature connectedness might involve activities such as outdoor education (eg, forest schools), conservation volunteering, and green social prescribing. You’ll hear from some experts about the impacts such activities have in the next few Steps.


  1. Measuring belongingness: The Social Connectedness and the Social Assurance scales. Lee, R. M., & Robbins, S. B. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 42(2), 232–241. 1995
  2. A Scoping Review of Nature, Land, and Environmental Connectedness and Relatedness. Keaulana S., et al. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 18(11):5897. 2021
  3. Do people who feel connected to nature do more to protect it? A meta-analysis. Mackay, C.M.L. & Schmitt, M.T. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 65, 101323. 2019
  4. State and Outlook of the European Environment 2020, European Environment Agency. EEA 2019.
  5. Applying the pathways to nature connectedness at a societal scale: a leverage points perspective. Richardson, M., et al. Ecosystems and People, 16, 387-401. 2020
  6. A safe and just operating space for human identity: a systems perspective. Oliver, T.H., et al. The Lancet Planetary Health, 6, e919-e927. 2022
  7. Country-level factors in a failing relationship with nature: Nature connectedness as a key metric for a sustainable future. Richardson, M., et al. Ambio 51: 2201–2213. 2022
  8. Self-construal predicts environmental concern, cooperation, and conservation. Arnocky, S., et al. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 27, 255-264. 2007
  9. Urbanized knowledge syndrome – erosion of diversity and systems thinking in urbanites’ mental models. Aminpour, P., et al. npj Urban Sustain 2, 11. 2022.
© University of Reading
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