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Flags as a Tool for Conservation: An Interview with Dr. Joann Peck

Members of Ecuador's national Antarctic program take a photo with True South before leaving for Antarctica
Members of Ecuador's national Antarctic program take a photo with True South shortly before departing for Antarctica

Science, engineering, and policy have long been the go-to tools for tackling our most pressing conservation issues. A landmark study published in September offers a compelling argument for adding another tool to the list— strategic communication and marketing. A team of four researchers captured public attention when they found that easy, no-cost interventions drastically changed the way people interact with shared goods and spaces. In their experiments, simple changes to things like the wording of a sign made people several times more likely to engage in good stewardship behavior like picking up trash or donating money.

We reached out to Dr. Joann Peck, Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business and co-author of the paper, for a quick chat about what her team's findings can tell us about what role flags might play in the conservation efforts.

Dr. Joann Peck, Wisconsin School of Business
Dr. Joann Peck

What is the "tragedy of the commons," and what might it mean for a shared space like Antarctica?

The tragedy of the commons is the idea that shared resources are sometimes neglected. The key insight is that shared ownership leads to diffusion of responsibility, so no one steps forward to care for the resource. The most extreme solution is to convert public property to private property so the responsibility for stewardship is clear. But that is not practical or desirable in many circumstances.

Right. And Antarctica is one of the instances where conversion to private property is not desirable. Your research explores a different kind of ownership, though. What is psychological ownership?

Psychological ownership is distinct from legal ownership. It is the feeling that something is mine. For example, you may have your parking place, your neighborhood park, or your continent. You do not legally own these but they feel like they are yours. The consequences of psychological ownership are positive. You value things you feel ownership over, you feel more responsible for them and you will take better care of them.

True South is an effort to strengthen the public's connection to— and therefore sense of responsibility for— Antarctica. Based on your research, what potential do you think flags have to actually change the welfare of common spaces?

True South at the headquarters of the Turkish Antarctic Program.
True South at the headquarters of the Turkish Antarctic Program.

Based on my work with various colleagues, increasing the sense of psychological ownership of Antarctica will dramatically benefit the continent. We found that increasing feelings of ownership results in better stewardship both in terms of effort given and funds donated. There are clear ways to increase psychological ownership, several of which could involve flags. Increasing the investment of self— putting labor or time into a project like this— will help increase ownership. Control is also another way to increase the feeling of ownership. Having input into the selection of a flag, which people are now doing in the case of Antarctica, increases feelings of ownership. Finally, intimate knowledge increases ownership. If people spend time in Antarctica they are much more likely to feel psychological ownership. But, if they can't, connecting people to more information, thereby increasing their knowledge, will make them more likely to feel ownership. For Antarctica, using your flag to emphasize that this is your continent will likely pay dividends in terms of stewardship behavior.

Before you go, do you have any last words of advice on how those of us who care about Antarctica can use your findings to ensure a better future for the continent?

It seems that True South is already on that path. Reminding people that it is their continent and their flag will be an effective way to increase psychological ownership, and this will pay off in terms of stewardship of the valuable resource of Antarctica.

True South on South Georgia Island.
True South on South Georgia Island.

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