Mind, Technology, and Society Talk Series

Brian Knutson & Nik Sawe
Stanford University
Time/Date: 3-4:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Co-sponsored by the Center for Climate Change and SNRI


Neural valuation of environmental resources

How do people value environmental resources? To estimate public valuation of natural resources, researchers often conduct surveys that ask people how much they would be willing to pay to preserve or restore threatened natural resources. However, these survey responses often elicit complex affective responses, including negative reactions toward proposed destructive land uses of those resources. To better characterize processes that underlie the valuation of environmental resources, we conducted behavioral and neuroimaging experiments in which subjects chose whether or not to donate money to protect natural park lands (iconic versus non-iconic) from proposed land uses (destructive versus non-destructive). In both studies, land use destructiveness motivated subjects’ donations more powerfully than did the iconic qualities of the parks themselves. Consistent with an anticipatory affect account, nucleus accumbens (NAcc) activity increased in response to more iconic parks, while anterior insula activity increased in response to more destructive uses, and the interaction of these considerations altered activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). Further, anterior insula activity predicted increased donations to preserve parks threatened by destructive uses, but MPFC activity predicted reduced donations. Finally, individuals with stronger pro-environmental attitudes showed greater anterior insula activity in response to proposed destructive uses. These results imply that negative responses to destructive land uses may play a prominent role in environmental valuation, potentially overshadowing positive responses to the environmental resources themselves. The findings also suggest that neuroimaging methods might eventually complement traditional survey methods by allowing researchers to disentangle distinct affective responses that influence environmental valuation.

Brian Knutson is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Stanford University. His research focuses on the neural basis of emotional experience and expression. He investigates the topic with a number of methods including self-report, measurement of nonverbal behavior, comparative ethology, psychopharmacology, and neuroimaging. His long-term goal is to understand the neurochemical and neuroanatomical mechanisms responsible for emotional experience, and to explore the implications of these findings for the assessment and treatment of clinical disorders as well as for economic behavior. Knutson has received Young Investigator Awards from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression and the American Psychiatric Association, and is a fellow of the Association for Behavioral Medicine and the Association for Psychological Science. He received BAs in experimental psychology and comparative religion from Trinity University, a PhD in experimental psychology from Stanford University, and has conducted postdoctoral research in affective neuroscience at UC-San Francisco and at the National Institutes of Health.