Stanford University

E-IPER Dissertation Defense - Anna Lee "Learning to be a Human Alongside the More-than-Human World: Navigating Information, Morality, and Sense of Self in a Social and Environmental Context"

Y2E2 111 and online
Alumni, Faculty, Staff, Students
Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Resources

In-Person: Y2E2 111

Virtual: Zoom Webinar


Humans are unique in our cognitive capacity to understand the nuances of how complex systems function, our ability to attach social, cultural, and symbolic meaning to elements of those systems, and our propensity to self-reflect and experience emotions about our roles in them. These abilities make our lives richer, but also more complicated, as they mean that navigation of the world involves not only procurement of the resources we need to survive but also cognition about those processes, and integration of reasoning, morality, and emotion into our choices. This dissertation examines the processes by which humans navigate the agency and responsibility that come with our human gifts—how we develop ideas about what it means to be a human alongside the more-than-human world, and how those ideas manifest in narratives we create and behaviors we adopt.

In Chapter 1, I use semi-structured interviews with visitors to a local farmers’ market to explore how people navigate the vast and complicated information landscape to develop mental models of how systems around us work, and how and when we apply those models to real-world decision-making. Chapter 2 focuses more deeply on the role of identity and morality in our understanding of how to interact with the world, using a set of interviews with office workers about their use of paper towels in public restrooms to reveal the various ways we narrate, or rationalize, our quotidian consumption-related behavior. Using video data from cameras worn or carried by hikers in a redwood forest, Chapter 3 explores how the emotional experience of awe in nature influences both how we understand our role in the larger world and how we construct and update our mental models in the face of awe.

Taken together, these chapters provide insight into the cognitive and emotional processes that underlie or explain our choices about how to navigate the world. They may inform behavioral and/or educational interventions to help us make more environmentally, but also more psychologically, sustainable choices in a complex world.

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