The following is the established format for referencing this article:Hagen, E. J., and R. K. Gould. 2022. Relational values and empathy are closely connected: A study of residents of Vermont's Winooski River watershed. Ecology and Society 27(3):19.
ABSTRACTRelational values are emerging as an important aspect of ecosystem valuation scholarship and practice. Yet, relatively few empirical examples of their expression exist in the literature. In addition, many characteristics of relational values suggest that they may interact with the quality of empathy, but scholars have not explored that interaction. To address both of these gaps, we designed a semi-structured interview protocol to explore relational values among residents of a large (~28,000 ha) watershed in Vermont, United States of America. We used thematic analysis to explore expressions of relational values and how they may relate to empathy. We discuss how relational values interact with empathy and perspective-taking, as the latter two concepts are theorized in social psychology. In our study, every reference (discrete codable expression) of empathy among our participants co-occurred with a relational-values reference. Conversely, 21% of relational-values references co-occurred with empathy. These results support our proposition that the two concepts are closely related, and we thus argue that there is strong reason to consider empathy as a relational value. We conclude by discussing possible implications of the interaction between relational values and empathy for research and practice, notably their promise for informing the global transformative changes regarding sustainable human–nature relationships called for by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
Both direct and indirect drivers of biodiversity loss and climate change have accelerated over the past 50 years, and goals for “conserving and sustainably using nature” will not be met if current trajectories of production and consumption of resources are followed (IPBES 2019: 772). The 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment that details these findings concludes that catastrophic ecosystem collapse can only be avoided through “transformative changes across economic, social, political, and technological factors” (IPBES 2019: 772). Embracing relational conceptions of a good life and promoting latent pro-environmental relational values were identified as two important leverage points in these transformations (Chan et al. 2020). In a largely separate line of research, scholars have explored the role empathy may play in sustainability; work from multiple disciplines suggests that empathy may be an influential force in moving toward sustainability. Toward this end, we explored the intersection of two concepts that hold promise for informing societal transformations around sustainable human–nature relationships, and that have not yet been linked in academia: empathy and relational values.
Empathy and sustainability
Empathy, which can be defined as an “other-oriented emotional response congruent with the perceived welfare of another individual” (Batson et al. 2002), is related to prosocial and helping behavior among humans (Batson et al. 2002, Williams et al. 2014, FeldmanHall et al. 2015). Perspective-taking, which involves attempting to perceive the experience of another from their point of view, is a widely used technique for inducing empathy between humans, and experimental trials reliably show that perspective-taking positively impacts empathy and prosocial and helping behaviors (Batson et al. 1995, 2002, Williams et al. 2014, FeldmanHall et al. 2015). Consistent with research on perspective-taking and empathy among humans, taking the perspective of the environment or components of the environment, like plants and animals, also leads to an empathic response (Schultz 2000, Sevillano et al. 2007, Ahn et al. 2016). Some of this environmentally focused research has explored connections between perspective-taking of environmental entities, empathy, and pro-environmental behavior, and finds them to be correlated (Berenguer 2007, Swim and Bloodhart 2015).
Brown et al. (2019) synthesize recent advances in environmental psychology, sociology, and philosophy and propose an empathy-sustainability hypothesis: "empathy – through processes of perspective-taking and emotional connection – is a prerequisite for sustainable actions with the biosphere” (p. 11). They argue that empathy, for both other people and the rest of nature, is not only a potential avenue to achieve pro-environmental behaviors, but a necessity. They suggest that empathy, through perspective-taking, may be an under-utilized tool for increasing the motivation to protect the environment, build trust and understanding between communities, and increase the success of collaboration among potential allies (Brown et al. 2019). They conclude with a call to better account for how environmental policy affects people’s sense of place and identity, and, therefore, how it affects the well-being of “who or what they feel empathy toward” (Brown et al. 2019). We suspect that integrating understandings of empathy and relational values may offer avenues to respond to their call and incorporate environmental empathy into environmental policy (specifically, environmental valuation). This may strengthen the potential of both concepts to improve sustainability and well-being outcomes.
Values and sustainability
In a line of work largely separate from research on empathy, scholars worldwide are exploring how to best characterize the multiple values associated with nature and include these values in decision-making. Within academic and policy discourse about environmental ethics, the value of nature has been conventionally organized into two domains: the value derived from what nature provides to people (instrumental values), and the value inherent in nature, regardless of people (intrinsic value) (Muraca 2011, 2016). These two value constructs, however, do not sufficiently describe the full spectrum of values people ascribe to nature and on their own fail to resonate with many people (Himes and Muraca 2018, van den Born et al. 2018). To address these insufficiencies, better reflect why nature matters to people, and avoid the unjust and undesirable conservation outcomes that attention to solely instrumental and intrinsic value can produce, scholars have developed a third understanding of values to accompany intrinsic and instrumental values: “relational values” (Muraca 2011, 2016, Chan et al. 2016). Instead of value gained from nature (instrumental values), or the value inherent in nature (intrinsic value), some researchers describe relational values as value derived with nature (Knippenberg et al. 2018). Described more fully, relational values (RVs) are “preferences, principles, and virtues about human–nature relationships,” and also include eudaimonic values (Chan et al. 2018: A1). In this context, eudaimonic values refer to non-substitutable contributions toward a good, meaningful, and worthwhile life that are derived through relationships with nature (Chan et al. 2018, Knippenberg et al. 2018, Pascual et al. 2017).
Like instrumental values, relational values can involve tangible and intangible benefits to people. A key difference is that, in practice, the qualities and components of nature associated with instrumental values are often treated as substitutable. One prominent manifestation of this substitutability is that these aspects of nature are sometimes represented in monetary terms and are thus reduced to fungible units of economic exchange. The qualities and components of nature associated with relational values, however, often cannot be substituted (Himes and Muraca 2018). The meaning of this is easy to see when considering relational values associated with people. One could not, for instance, substitute one’s best friend with another human of similar disposition without changing the value derived from that relationship. The friend is non-substitutable, because the primary value associated with that friend is relational (not instrumental).
Recent years have seen a rapid increase in studies of relational values; we provide a few examples. Much of this work describes RVs in diverse contexts, and it is based on diverse forms of data (quantitative, qualitative, mixed; from original data collection and existing sources). Klain et al. (2017), for instance, collect quantitative data on relational values from Costa Rican farmers, tourists in Costa Rica, and U.S. residents. They find that RVs resonate broadly with each group of people and use factor analysis to show that relational values constitute an internally coherent framework. Kleespies and Dierkes (2020) surveyed German university students to explore statistical characteristics of the Klain et al. (2017) survey instrument and found support for convergent and discriminant validity of RVs as a construct. Saito et al. (2021) used a different survey instrument to study differences in values (some of which are relational values) toward local nature and nature in general in Greater Tokyo and found RVs to be present among a broad age range. Calcagni et al. (2019) demonstrate that social media data can reveal relational values. Gould et al. (2019) explore relational values in written accounts of Hawaiian culture and worldview and find that many core Hawaiian principles align strongly with relational values.
Other research explores the role relational values could play in transformative change toward sustainability. Uehara et al. (2020) demonstrate that relational values such as stewardship are important aspects of Japanese satoumi management systems and use results of semi-structured interviews with students to demonstrate that ocean literacy programs cultivate relational values and willingness to protect nature. Admiraal et al. (2017) and van den Born et al. (2018) find that eudaimonic values and other relational values are a key motivational component of people who are highly committed to action for nature across several European countries. Mould et al. (2020) find that relational values often explain landholders’ river-management practices in southern Australia; specifically, relational values often motivate sustainability-supportive management. Chapman et al. (2019) find that lack of participation in a conservation incentive program in the northwestern United States is often driven by program conditions that appear to threaten relational values; they suggest ways that accommodating RVs could lead to greater program participation without compromising ecological integrity.
Results such as these demonstrate the importance of relational values. However, most of the previously noted studies assess participants’ agreement with, or ranking of, statements of relational values rather than analyzing relational values as articulated by the participants. As of yet, rich, nuanced examples of how relational values are expressed and what that means for the relational-values concept are still relatively uncommon. Though Mould et al. (2020) and Chapman et al. (2019) provide examples of in-depth analyses of values articulated by participants, both orient their analyses toward management implications rather than core aspects of relational values.
We responded to the gaps identified previously via an interview-based exploration of empathy and relational values. Our research questions are:
- What relational values do residents of Vermont’s Winooski River watershed express, and how do these expressions inform our understanding of relational values?
- How do relational values concepts interact with the social-psychological theory of empathy?
Vermont is a heavily forested (78% forest cover) state in the Northeastern United States, located within the temperate broadleaf and mixed forests biome. The Winooski River watershed drains about 12% of the state’s land area encompassing its largest city (Burlington; 42,000 people), capital city (Montpelier; 8000 people), tallest mountain (Mount Mansfield; 1340 m), farmland, and large tracts of public and private forest. The river then terminates at its confluence with Lake Champlain, a 172km-long lake that stretches from the Canadian border south and forms much of Vermont’s western border with New York state.
Motivation for our approach
This study was designed to elicit and analyze diverse relational values using semi-structured interviews and subsequent thematic techniques to analyze qualitative data (Braun and Clarke 2006). Qualitative data are well suited to the exploration of new topics (e.g., the interaction of relational values and empathy), as well as the exploration of established concepts applied to new situations (e.g., relational values in Northeastern U.S. watershed) (Barclay et al. 2017). Qualitative data are also useful for uncovering mistaken assumptions, discovering new interactions between concepts and phenomena, helping refine future quantitative data collection instruments, and helping decision-making and theory more accurately reflect perspectives and values of the assessed population (Barclay et al. 2017).
This study’s central strategy was to ask people involved with nature-based passions and/or careers to take the interviewer to places within the watershed of particular personal importance, and then ask them questions about their relationship to that place and its meaning to them. By conducting our interviews while walking “in the field,” we hoped to put participants in contact with aspects of nature that they find meaningful, and that this contact would spark contextual memories and emotions, as well as facilitate more effective conversation and inquiry. Walking interviews such as these have been used in Cultural Ecosystem Services (CES) and other social-science research and are suggested to be useful for producing preliminary qualitative data that aid further assessment, prompting responses that researchers might not find using more conventional (i.e., stationary) techniques (Anderson 2004, Teff-Seker and Orenstein 2019).
After receiving ethical approval from the University of Vermont’s Institutional Review Board, we used purposive selection to assemble a participant group of 16 watershed residents with a diversity of relationships with the landscape. Specifically, we sought participation from farmers, natural-resource professionals, hunters, foresters, business owners, teachers, members of the locally Indigenous Abenaki communities, and lay-members of conservation groups. We attended to gender diversity in selection, aiming for roughly equal representation of women and men. Because the purpose of our study was exploratory, we stopped looking for new participants after securing participation from at least one person from each category of relationship listed previously. The results of our analysis confirm this sample as appropriate for our study, as no single interview added notably unique content to our findings, which suggests data saturation – i.e., our results would likely not fundamentally change with the addition of further interviews (Saunders et al. 2018).
The first author contacted local conservation groups, foresters, and representatives of two Abenaki (i.e., local Indigenous) communities via email and asked if they would be willing to invite some of their members and contacts to participate in a place-based interview focused on understanding different relationships and values associated with biodiversity, the natural world, and conserved land. Some participants were recommended by name, while others responded voluntarily to group emails. Potential participants were informed that the interview would take place on the participant’s property or another personally meaningful landscape, and the participants would be asked to walk with the interviewer to natural places of particular importance to the participant.
We conducted 14 interviews with individuals and one interview with a couple. The 15 interviews took place between June and October of 2019. Demographic information was requested from all participants. Nine of the participants identified as male, and seven as female. Two participants identified as Abenaki and the others as white/Caucasian; our participant group thus largely reflects the racial makeup of the state of Vermont, which is 93% white. All participants were adults, and all but one were over 40. Twelve of the 15 households represented (80%) were homeowners, which is higher than the 2019 Vermont homeownership rate of 71% (Mateyka and Mazur 2021). All participants shared a high level of willingness to engage with a one- to four-hour environmental social-science research project. As such, the results from this study are likely not representative of a larger population. They represent the views of people particularly willing to talk about their local place. Our results and analysis might best be viewed as exploratory articulations of nascent theoretical concepts and connections, derived from conversations with people near one end of a spectrum of engagement with, and care about, nature (Yin 2014).
The interview protocol followed a semi-structured interview design and included 29 open-ended questions about participants’ relationships and values associated with biodiversity, the natural world, and conserved land. We developed the interview protocol using three primary sources of inspiration: the academic literature on relational values and empathy, as described in the introduction, and two question sets created by Vermont natural-resource practitioners to understand communities’ and individuals’ place-based relationships and values (described in Appendix 1) (Sopher 2019).
We began each interview by asking participants six general questions about themselves. Next, we asked participants 17 questions about their relationship to the land, conservation, and biodiversity in general. Next, we asked participants to take the interviewer to one or more places of particular meaning or interest to the participant. At each location, we asked six questions. After we finished visiting places of interest, we asked participants seven questions reflecting on the land as a whole. We designed the final question in the interview to prompt nature-oriented perspective-taking in order to induce – and thus more explicitly explore – empathy with nature. At the end of the interview, we gave participants the opportunity to answer a few more optional questions about a local conservation plan, and most declined (Appendix 2, for full interview protocol).
We transcribed the interviews verbatim, then coded them using the qualitative software NVivo 12. We then used counts of each code and the open-source software R to produce figures. Consistent with our qualitative data analysis approach, we report numerical data in our results to give precision to our descriptions but make no claims of statistical significance or population representation (Maxwell 2010). To strike a balance between providing as much detail as possible and easing readability, we have removed some of the pauses and stutters in the quotations reported in the results and provided these quotations verbatim in Appendices 3 and 4 (Oliver et al. 2005).
To address the difference between what a person communicates and how we have organized these communications, we differentiate between the term “expression,” which we use to describe what participants said, and the term “reference,” which we use (following NVivo software) to describe a coded expression of relevant themes. Next, we describe the process of coding in greater detail.
We coded the interviews using a three-step process. For Step One, the two authors jointly designed a first-draft codebook that included definitions of RV in general (Table 1), and empathy for nature (Table 2), along with ten RV themes found in the literature (Table 2). Using this codebook, EJH analyzed all transcripts and coded every discrete instance of relational values and/or empathy, and created a “reference” in NVivo. Coding decisions tended strongly toward inclusion: If there was doubt as to inclusion in a given theme, EJH coded the statement to that theme (this inclusive approach was important given our coding process; Step Two). During Step One, we iteratively modified the codebook; new RV themes were added as patterns emerged, and others were adjusted and reconfigured. For example, the RV theme “friendship” was created after descriptions of nature as a friend arose in multiple interviews.
In Step Two, RKG reviewed a random selection of references in all coding themes and noted areas of disagreement (i.e., statements coded to a theme that RKG did not agree should be coded to that theme) and areas of agreement (i.e., RKG agreed with the coding). The two authors then used this sample of the data to refine the coding, add and remove themes, and standardize the codebook together.
In Step Three, EJH used the updated codebook to refine the coding by re-analyzing all text coded as either empathy or relational values during Step One. Selected text captured the essential components for each coded theme while being as short as possible. During this final coding step, both authors consulted on passages that were borderline, confusing, or otherwise difficult to code. The final codebook is depicted in Table 2.
Public sharing of interview content
This research was conducted as part of a collaboration with the Vermont Alliance for Half-Earth (VAFHE), a volunteer non-governmental organization focused on biodiversity conservation. VAFHE had no influence on interviewee selection, research design, interview guide development, data analysis, or the writing of this manuscript, but they did suggest the idea of interviewing residents of the watershed and sharing their stories with the public. We agreed with this public sharing and created outreach material in the form of ESRI Storymaps and a related book (published by VAFHE and other NGO partners) that highlight six interviews (among other content). After each interview, we asked the participant if they would like to have segments of their interview published as part of the outreach materials affiliated with VAFHE; we included only those who agreed, and these participants reviewed the materials before they were made public. Appendix 5 provides further details.
Expressions of relational values and three emergent qualities
From the 15 interviews conducted, we coded 667 discrete expressions of relational values, which often contained multiple overlapping references to relational values themes (1003 total RV theme references). Figure 1 depicts the total number of references for each RV theme across all interviews, along with the number of participants with references for each theme. In general, within our participant group, RV themes were expressed proportionally such that themes that were expressed by more people were also expressed more frequently in total. This numerical summary is useful for giving overall impressions of the data, such as how many people expressed each theme, and how many times each theme was expressed in total. For example, “stewardship (care for)” and “care about” were coded for every participant and were also the most coded themes overall. Other themes were not coded frequently nor coded in many interviews but still represent RVs of importance. The following quote, from a participant who grows produce for his restaurant, demonstrates this pattern for the RV theme “friendship”; though we used this code infrequently, it clearly encompasses a rich and important type of value:
Well, I’m going to say something that is going to come off as hopelessly odd, but, I, at this moment I get to stand among friends. There’s... millions. And one of the things that I’ve come to appreciate is that it’s not just the megafauna and flora that are integral to my life. It’s the uncountable trillions of little guys in the soil that are absolutely essential to my well-being and to the well-being of everybody else, that I appreciate and find beauty in, and I find peace in.
[Themes coded: friendship, eudaimonia]
We organized the rest of our findings as related to our first research question into two sections. First, we demonstrated how the expression of RVs in our sample was highly variable between participants. Second, we distilled three overarching messages that emerged inductively from the data and that incorporate and holistically encompass many of the more specific types of RV for which we coded (i.e., that are listed in Table 2).
Expression of RVs is highly variable person-to-person
Though Figure 1 shows that RV themes were generally distributed proportionally across the interviews, the distribution of expressed RV themes within each interview (Figure 2) reveals that expression of RV themes among the participants was highly variable and individually unique. Many participants frequently expressed codes that were infrequently expressed on average, as well as the opposite. In the following paragraphs we provide multiple quotes and their context from one interview that exemplifies this result.
Though “heritage” was a relatively infrequently discussed RV theme among all participants (mentioned 50 times across nine interviews), for the participant in Interview 12 “heritage” was the most commonly expressed theme. This participant grew up near the mouth of the Winooski River, which is where she chose to locate the interview. She spoke of her parents raising her in her Abenaki heritage, and how she grew up playing with her sisters in the meadows and forests nearby. While walking through the fields and forests of her childhood neighborhood, she described the constitutive value of those places to her sense of identity: “So I think I wouldn't have a sense of myself if I didn't have this place. Does that make sense?”
Part of the interview took place next to a field where as a child she would pick medicinal plants for her mother, which was an important connection to both her mother and her Abenaki heritage. As she grew older she lost her mother and struggled to hold onto her heritage; the field was also developed into a subdivision. She explained the impact of the loss of the field and what it represents for her and her children:
You know what, those plants are gone. Where are they? Where can I find those plants now? For a while, a period of my life, I walked away from all of that because I tried to fit into the White world, still trying to fit in. But I totally walked away from all of that. And in the process this happened [the field was developed into a subdivision]. So I think that's also, you know I'm now getting back to an age where it's like, this is important – instead of chasing what everyone says we’re supposed to chase. And it's not here to pass on to anybody. It’s not here to pass on to my kids.
[Themes coded: heritage, bequest]
Empirical data on three common qualities of relational values
From our interviews we identified three common qualities of relational values. Next, we briefly describe these qualities and offer an exemplary quote for each. Quotes that exemplify each coded RV theme can be found in Appendix 3.
The first common quality is that relational values can involve complex layering of different relationships with nature. The following quote comes from a participant who spends much of his free time restoring a wetland in what used to be part of his lawn. During the beginning of this interview, the participant described how he is restoring his yard, and how he derives value through this stewardship relationship and the connection he has built with the land. In the following quote, he pivots and explains how his personal relationship with the land is intertwined with the constitutive aspect the land plays in his connection with his daughter, as well as the role it plays in his preparation for the good future of his daughter and soon-to-be-born child:
I don't ever want to move again, you know, it’s nice to be tied to it [the land around his house]. And then sharing it with the little one, or soon-to-be two, and seeing what they're interested in and not. And having her just grow up with a wetland next to her house, like how cool is that? I mean maybe she'll be like, “ugh, Dad, you and your weird wetland,” but maybe she'll be like, “yeah we had a wetland, and like, you know, it’s not some stinky thing, it’s really cool. And, you know, we did this and did that.”
[Themes coded: connectedness, social bonds, bequest]
The second quality is that relational values can involve deeply important sources of life richness, or what the literature refers to as the good life. Throughout our interviews, this eudaimonic quality was often an implicit component of other expressed relational values, but in the following quote, a participant explicitly describes his love for his property and how his relationship to the land adds to the richness of his life. This participant recently bought an environmentally-degraded property that he is actively restoring:
And then it's also just like, I just love it. You know, I had a dog who used to work with me all the time ... and I loved him so much. And then he just, like, died. And you know, I felt like I didn't lose the capacity to love that thing. I didn't lose, like, any space in my body where I would hold that love, you know? I just didn't have that anymore. And I think I sort of feel this way about this place, where here is this thing that I love so much, and I just, like, expanded to meet the challenge of being the steward of this, of getting to be the steward of this place. And if I didn't have it I’d probably be okay, but my life wouldn't be as rich.
[Themes coded: care about, eudaimonia, stewardship (care for)]
Here the participant clearly explains the strength of his emotional connection to the land, and how caring for the land is an integral component to his sense of a good life.
The third quality is that relational values can be difficult to articulate, yet still extremely important. Throughout the interviews, participants often expressed how difficult it is to adequately describe the importance of their relationships with nature (Gould and Schultz 2021). The following quote about a participant’s relationship to the forest and pond around her home exemplifies how the difficulty of adequately articulating relational values should not be mistaken for their lack of importance:
Interviewer: So, how would you describe your relationship to the land here?
Participant: Oh man! [laugh] Really?! It’s like, uh, it’s everything. I’m not sure I can do that. I don’t know what to say about that because it’s really everything. It really feels like, um, it feels like where I belong. And, the more I live here the more I realize that I don’t know much yet. And, um, the more there is to know. And the more things I’m excited about learning. And the happier I am about, about... I love it here…I think every year you spend in the same place it gets deeper. I have been coming here since I was a small child and I fell in love with it… I’m connected to the prairie landscape as well, where I spent most of my childhood, really… But I’ve been here, and living here for my whole life since then, so I feel a much stronger connection here. Especially with the pond. Not very articulate on this subject [laugh]. It’s too important to talk about!
[Themes coded: identity, general relational satisfaction, eudaimonia, connectedness]
Empathy and relational values
Close alignment between empathy and relational values
To address our second research question, we explored interactions between empathy and relational values. In the previous examples, we intentionally chose passages in which we did not also code for empathy (for simplicity). Yet empathy was commonly expressed throughout the interviews, and it always coincided with expressions of relational values, i.e., 100% of empathy references were also coded as RV. Conversely, 21% of all RV references coincided with coded empathy (Table 3).
As described earlier, empathy involves an emotional response congruent with the perceived welfare of another (Batson et al. 2002). In our interviews, these emotional responses reliably revealed a value held by, or value experienced by, the person regarding their relationship with nature. Next, we provide two examples of the interaction between empathy and relational values.
The first example comes from a wildlife biologist who was explaining her relationship with the bobcats that live in her study area:
Interviewer: Do you think they [the bobcats] distinguish you from other people?
Participant: Probably. Yeah, I’ve had them walk on my back trail just minutes after my passing. I don’t, you know, I know – maybe they know I love ‘em [laughs]. When I was younger, I used to climb up the cliff faces and take pictures of the dens and stuff. All kinds of intrusive stuff, which I now, you know, am ashamed about, really. But... I’ve got the pictures [said with a smile].
[Themes coded: empathy, care about]
The love she expresses is a clear indication of the RV theme “care about,” but so is the shame she feels for her intrusion into their private kit-rearing den site. This statement simultaneously depicts empathy, because her shame is an emotional response caused by her infringement upon her perception of the bobcats’ welfare.
A second example of the interaction of RVs and empathy comes from a participant who grew up in the headwaters of the Winooski River, where we waded around the river and looked for insects and birds like he did as a child:
One of the most valued things that I did as a child, this was my playground. All day long, man. This wasn’t a study, this wasn’t class, this is where I went to get the hell away from bullies. This is where I went to get away from my father who was kind of a jerk. And to, you know, I was safe here, this land, this [gesturing to the surroundings] didn’t judge me. Just by spending a lot of time there I started forming this relationship, so now I value this differently, right?... So, when you allow a child to form relationships that are really personal, then that becomes a value system. Why would I want to hurt this? This wasn’t the bully, you know? So I have a dear spot for this, and that’s probably why I am the way I am. In part… That’s where the love of it comes from.
[Themes coded: empathy, care about, identity]
Here, the participant explains how his relationship with nature in this place was immensely important to him as a child, and how this relationship built in him values that shape his identity and actions today. This is an example of empathy that isn’t as explicitly expressed as in the first example but still warrants coding. Empathy is defined as an emotional response congruent with the perceived welfare of another (Batson et al. 2002). This participant’s statement of affection for, and desire to not harm, the river, constitutes an emotional response that is congruent with his perception of the river’s welfare. Appendix 4 provides additional examples of the co-occurrence of RVs and empathy.
Perspective-taking, empathy, and relational values
To more directly explore the effect of inducing perspective-taking on empathy and relational values, we asked participants a closing question: “If the land could talk, what do you think it would say?” This question yielded a diversity of rich responses, which often differed from responses to other questions. One participant, a retired agricultural specialist who spends much of his time caretaking his ancestral family farmland, replied as follows:
[Breathes out through nose]. Wow… Um… I don’t know. "Crazy old bat?" [five second pause] I don’t know. "You done well? You tried." Maybe that’s the word. "You tried. You left it better than when you started." I don’t know. Maybe "you haven’t done enough." Probably, I think it’s all of those. "You haven’t done enough." I know I haven’t done enough. I can’t do enough. I want to do a lot more but I can’t. I’m alone! And I’ve got a wife and kids and grandkids, but I’m alone. You know, they don’t have the same values I do… I think “you tried. You did alright. You haven’t done enough.” All of that! “I’m better off than when I started.” Um. “Keep going, pass it on.”
[Themes coded: empathy, bequest, care about, stewardship (care for)]
Here, in a display of empathy, the participant expresses his distress at not being able to do as much for the land as he perceives the land would want. But he also relays appreciation from the land for doing what he could – for trying – along with a plea to pass on his caretaking values and concern for the land to others.
The response to the perspective-taking question involved empathy, but other responses did not. For example:
Hmm. [brief laugh] I don't know. Again, I don't – I, uh, I'm sorry I don't have any answer for that. It isn't that, ah. I – I guess I just don't really think about it that way. You know, it's probably a shortcoming on my part, but. Ah, I mean, I think, if we could listen, not so much if the land could – the land is talking, in its many many multitudinous ways. But if we could listen better we'd probably do a better job at living life. [pause] You know, we'd learn a lot more about patience, and, you know, sharing, and, you know, we'd learn, we'd learn to recognize greed for what it is and waste for what it is. If you think about it, there's no waste in nature. Why is it that there's so much waste in what we do? What's that tell us?
[Themes coded: life teaching]
The perspective-taking question caught many participants off-guard but, as shown previously, also often prompted insightful instances of introspection and sharing. When we asked this participant to take the perspective of the land, she relayed lessons that nature has to teach us, if we would only bring more listening into our relationship with nature. Further examples of responses to this question can be found in Appendix 6.
Though only 8 out of 15 interviews included codable expressions of empathy in their response to this perspective-taking question, the prevalence of empathy was greater in response to this question compared to the rest of the interview questions (Figure 3).
Our results are organized into two lines of inquiry: an exploration of the abundant expressions of RVs in our interviews, and alignment between empathy and relational values. In our exploration of RVs, we provided an approach for organizing expressions of RVs into themes in order to help illustrate patterns. One outcome of organizing expressions of RVs into themes is the demonstration of patterns of variability in RV expression among participants. We also distilled three overarching qualities of RVs in our data and provided quotes that exemplify each. Next, we showed the close alignment between empathy and relational values in our interviews, with around 20% of RV references coinciding with empathy, and 100% of empathy references co-coded as RV. When we attempted to induce empathy in our participants by asking them to take the perspective of the land, all of our interviews included expressions of RV in their responses, and about half of the responses also included empathy. Next, we discuss each of these results, then comment on the role of RVs and empathy in creating more sustainable futures.
Expressions of relational values
Distilling interviews into themes, and themes into counts, progressively removes the contextual meaning of relational values present at the time of expression. Yet organizing expressed relational values into thematic codes can help visualize broader patterns within an interview, or within a population. In our data, for example, “stewardship (care for)” and “care about” were expressed by every participant and were also the most expressed themes overall. Yet numerical summaries must be interpreted with caution (Maxwell 2010). Frequency of expression is not equivalent to importance of a value, because people can have difficulty expressing some of their deeply held beliefs (Gould and Schultz 2021) or may filter their responses according to their perception of social acceptability (Fisher 1993).
Yet another complication with numerical analysis is that some themes are discussed more frequently because interview questions more directly prompted their expression; this issue of “leading” interviewees is a fundamental concern and tension in social-science research (e.g., Maxwell 2012). Stewardship, the most prevalent theme in our data, provides the most obvious example. One question that we asked at every site we visited with participants was “Why did you choose to manage this place as you have?” This question often elicited the description of acts of stewardship and their importance to the participant. Another question we asked was “Thinking about your [or the] whole property, what are some of the things you love about this place?” This question was designed to signal to participants that it was acceptable to include emotions in their responses, but it also can be seen as quite leading. It explicitly asks participants for expressions of love, which we considered to be an aspect of the RV theme “care about.” In other words, our two most prevalent RV themes were almost directly addressed in the interview questions. The only other RV theme that was similarly addressed in an interview question was ‘social bonds’ (with the question “how might this land be important to other people?”). Social bonds was the fourth most prevalent theme (empathy was the third-most coded theme, and empathy was intentionally prompted by an interview question). Thus, especially for the four themes that our questions addressed more directly (stewardship, care for, empathy, and social bonds), the prevalence of mentions is far less important than the nuances and details of peoples’ responses (Maxwell 2010).
Our interview questions, though they sometimes referred to well-known RVs (either implicitly or explicitly), also allowed for wide-ranging responses from which previously undiscussed RV themes emerged. As one example, the more modest amount of expressions of “friendship” that we coded all arose unprompted from more open-ended questions. And though expressed relatively infrequently, this friendship was important to many participants.
Coding expressions of RVs into themes also allowed us to visualize patterns of variability among our interviews. For example, for the participant in Interview 12, “heritage” was the most commonly expressed RV theme, though it wasn’t a significant part of most other interviews. Of note, is that the participant in interview 12 is Abenaki and, therefore, part of a minority community in Vermont. This speaks to the role of RVs in daylighting values that are crucial to certain people or groups of people, particularly those who are non-dominant (Pascual et al. 2017, Himes and Muraca 2018, Gould et al. 2020). It also underscores the importance of seeking diverse participation in studies of RVs and other nonmaterial value (Zander and Straton 2010, Tauro et al. 2018, Riechers et al. 2018); without this person’s participation, we could have falsely concluded that heritage is not an important component of RVs in our study area.
We also identified and provided examples of three common qualities of RVs. The first quality is that RVs can involve complex layering of different relationships with nature. In our example, a participant’s restoration of a wetland in his yard is an opportunity to engage in stewardship, as well as connect with his children and provide a nourishing environment in which they can grow up. This quality is connected to the “bundling” of nonmaterial values seen in CES literature (e.g., Gould et al. 2015), and exemplifies how a relational values framework can shift the focus of value accounting toward understanding the complex interactions that create a larger story of meaning for those involved (Himes and Muraca 2018).
The second quality we identified is that RVs can involve important sources of personal meaning. This is an articulation of the eudaimonic quality of many RVs (Pascual et al. 2017, Knippenberg et al. 2018, Chan et al. 2018). Eudaimonia characterized expressions of RVs throughout our interviews, but in the example we provide, the participant articulates the link between relationship and personal meaning with exceptional clarity, explaining how the love he has for his land and his stewardship of the land are intertwined, and how this relationship adds to the richness of his life. Here, along with the earlier quote displaying the RV theme ‘friendship,’ we see an example of how RVs can help broaden our perspectives about whom or what we can have meaningful relationships with, and what those relationships can look like (James 2016, Knippenberg et al. 2018, Jax et al. 2018). These qualities can inform efforts to embrace diverse visions of a good life (Chan et al. 2020, leverage point 1) and foster pro-environmental values (Chan et al. 2020, leverage point 3).
It is not always possible, however, for people to verbally express the importance of their relationships with nature. This relates to the third overarching quality we identified: RVs can be difficult to articulate, even as participants identify these values as extremely important to them (Himes and Muraca 2018). When asked to describe her relationship to the land she lives on, the participant in this example responded by saying it was “too important to talk about!” Thus for researchers attempting to elicit and categorize RVs, paying attention to what is said may be as important as paying attention to what is extremely difficult to say or cannot be said due to a quality of ineffability. Researchers can attempt to facilitate articulation of these values in various ways (Gould and Schultz 2021); our perspective-taking question provides one example.
Close alignment between empathy and relational values
It is well documented that people can have empathic responses to non-human beings and even whole landscapes (Schultz 2000, Walker and Chapman 2003, Sevillano et al. 2007). Our results are consistent with these findings; our participants expressed empathy for animals, plants, rivers, and ecosystems.
An expression of empathy reveals an emotional preference for the welfare of another (Batson et al. 2002). In our interviews, expressions of empathy always coincided with an expression of RVs. Conversely, about 20% of RV references in our interviews coincided with coded empathy. Though perspective-taking is a commonly used technique for inducing empathy, research has not (to our knowledge) explored whether perspective-taking can induce or elicit relational values. When we attempted to induce empathy by asking participants to take the perspective of the land (“if the land could talk, what do you think it would say?”), every response included expressions of RV. This suggests that perspective-taking may play a role in evoking, producing, and/or internalizing RVs. This finding could have implications for both research and practice. It could aid efforts to understand relational values in environmental decision-making and research by offering a novel way to help people discuss these values, especially if techniques are careful to not lead respondents into certain types of answers. It could also aid practical efforts to foster latent values (Chan et al. 2020, leverage point 3) by offering people a novel way to reflect on their values.
Our results clearly suggest a close relationship between empathy and RVs. Part of this relationship could be that experiences or expressions of empathy toward nature may reveal or include relational values. Interpreted another way, it may be that empathy is a significant component of some RVs, or, as we will argue, it may be that empathy is itself a relational value. Relational values are, again, “preferences, principles, and virtues about human–nature relationships,”(Chan et al. 2018: A1). Next, we describe how empathy could be considered a preference or a virtue.
Schultz (2000) lays the groundwork for understanding empathy as a preference. According to Value-Belief-Norm theory, concern is based on a perceived threat to a valued object, which could be the self, other people, or nature (Stern and Dietz 1994). Schultz argues that this value is dependent on valuing our relationship with the object; i.e., nature, in the case of environmental concern (Schultz 2000). Schultz recognizes that environmental concern resonates strongly with the concept of empathy, and proposes that they are associated. If we consider empathy for nature as intertwined with concern for nature, empathy can be seen as (at least in part) dependent on being in a valued relationship with nature. It reveals a preference for the well-being of a constitutive component (i.e., nature) of that valued relationship.
In an almost entirely separate literature, many scholars argue that empathy is a virtue and that it is necessary for moral functioning (Simmons 2014, Peterson 2017). It is worth noting that empathy is a vigorously debated concept, with as many as 43 distinct definitions, and plenty of philosophers who argue that empathy is not a virtue (Battaly 2011, Cuff et al. 2016, Clark et al. 2019). One salient aspect of the “is empathy a virtue?” debate relates closely to the conceptual core of relational values (Coplan and Goldie 2011). Arguments against empathy as a virtue claim that empathy may result in action that is too context-specific (e.g., too oriented toward one individual). This context-specific action may not, the empathy-is-not-a-virtue camp argues, be what is best for society, which means empathy can be societally detrimental. One philosopher encapsulates this argument as “tugs of empathy must be resisted so that moral principles may be served” (Peterson 2017, p. 232, summarizing Bloom [e.g., 2016] and Prinz [e.g., 2011]). This argument relates closely to the conception of morality as abstract and decontextualized (the canonized Western philosophical understanding; e.g., Kant 1797) versus as relational and contextualized (a feminist understanding; e.g., Gilligan 1993). One fundamental aspect of the relational values concept is that values are intertwined with relationships, and thus are often context-dependent (e.g., Muraca 2011, 2016). Considering empathy as a relational value is, therefore, consistent with the relational values scholarly conversation; empathy’s context-dependence does not disqualify it as a virtue but instead supports it as a relational virtue.
Importantly, the expansive literature about empathy, which involves primarily psychology and philosophy (e.g., Coplan and Goldie 2011), addresses almost exclusively human–human empathy. The strong importance of human–nature empathy in our exploratory analysis of the associations between empathy and relational values suggests an exciting, promising new area of inquiry. We propose that there is strong reason to consider empathy as a relational value and that future research can explore, conceptualize, and test this relationship further.
Transformative change, empathy, and (other?) relational values
The transformative changes that IPBES calls for include not only a global economic transition away from ever-increasing material consumption but also a total overall reduction in material consumption (IPBES 2019). To make this transition both effective and equitable, the world’s richest people will have to consume less, while the poorest among us should be able to consume more (Wiedmann et al. 2020).
The required reduction in consumption is often spoken about as a dwindling standard of living, but relational values may point to a path where global resource consumption dwindles but quality of life not only stays constant, but increases (Muraca 2016, Chan et al. 2016, IPBES 2019). In line with Chan et al.’s (2020) first leverage point, embracing diverse visions of a good life, the lost value associated with a global reduction of material consumption could be partially replaced through the intentional promotion of relational values among humans and between people and nature. In other words, what if those of us who have our basic needs met relied more on cultivating fulfilling relationships to provide ourselves with a good life, rather than on luxury consumption? Quantitative research has shown that perspective-taking and empathy have been shown to positively affect pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors (Berenguer 2007, Swim and Bloodhart 2015), and our results suggest that they may also be able to promote expression of relational values. This in turn, suggests that perspective-taking and empathy may be important tools in both embracing diverse visions of a good life (Chan et al. 2020: leverage point 1) and in promoting latent pro-environmental relational values (Chan et al. 2020: leverage point 3).
Qualitative analysis of interviews using a relational-values framework can reveal important, non-substitutable sources of meaning, well-being, and emotional connection that are derived through relationships with nature. Further, our results suggest close connections between empathy and relational values, and perspective-taking may play a role in evoking, producing, and internalizing relational values. We also argue that there is strong reason to consider empathy as a relational value. Relational values, perspective-taking, and empathy may all be powerful (and interrelated) concepts and tools in increasing the equitability and desirability for environmental decision-making and conservation outcomes; they may offer a path toward increasing human well-being while decreasing the consumption of resource-intensive goods and services that fuel the global trajectory toward further environmental crises.
RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLEResponses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.
We are sincerely grateful to all of our study participants for their generosity in time, knowledge, and thoughtfulness. For research support we thank the Field Naturalist Program and the Vermont Alliance for Half-Earth.
The data/code that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author, E.J.H. None of the data/code are publicly available because they contain information that could compromise the privacy of research participants. Ethical approval for this research study was granted by the University of Vermont's Institutional Review Board, STUDY00000393.
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Table 1. Necessary criteria for coding a passage as an expression of relational values. Here we define relational values as “preferences, principles, and virtues about human-nature relationships” (Chan et al. 2018: A1).
|Object-oriented||“RVs can take the form of a held value as applied to a thing or things (e.g., equality with other species; solidarity towards a particular fox; responsibility toward living nature)” (Chan et al. 2018: A4).
|Relational in content||Relational values must be relational in content (as opposed to relational in process), meaning the relationship itself matters, not just as a means to an end (K. M. Chan et al. 2018, Himes & Muraca 2018).
|Non-substitutable||Relational values involve objects of value that are at least partly non-substitutable (Chan et al. 2018). Knippenberg et al. (2018) describes this non-substitutable quality of relational values as when nature, or a specific aspect of nature, is constitutive (integral) to a relational whole (made up of people, nature, and their relationship) that is valued intrinsically, like a flourishing life (nature-inclusive eudaimonia), partnership (Knippenberg et al. 2018), or a sense of identity (James 2016). To judge this criteria while coding we asked, “Could the quality of value derived with nature remain the same if the relevant aspect of nature were substituted with anything else, including another similar natural feature?”|
Table 2. Final Codebook. Empathy and relational values themes.
|empathy||An emotional response congruent with the perceived welfare of another. If the other is in need; empathic feelings include sympathy, tenderness, compassion, etc. If the other is experiencing happiness or wellbeing; empathic feelings include goodwill, affection, etc. This code was only used for empathy towards nature, not towards other humans.||Batson et al. (2002), Telle and Pfister (2016)|
|Relational Values Themes|
|balance||Finding virtue in being in balance or harmony with nature, as well as considering equity between human and non-human needs.||Emergent theme|
|bequest||Placing importance on preserving or maintaining aspects of nature for future generations.||Oleson et al. (2015)|
|care about||Feelings of concern or love for aspects of nature that matter to the respondent.||Britto de Santos and Gould (2018)|
|connectedness||Feeling a part of, or connected to, nature.||Britto de Santos and Gould (2018)|
|eudaimonia||Nature-inclusive eudaimonic value. Human flourishing. Relationships with nature lead to a good, meaningful, and worthwhile life. The relationship itself matters, and the relationship is not wholly substitutable. Many relational value themes are characterized by their eudaimonic value, but this code is used when eudaimonia is spoken about specifically.||Knippenberg et al. (2018); Chan et al. (2018)|
|friendship||Feeling that ecosystem components are like friends. Coded only when participants use the term “friend” or similar.||Emergent theme|
|heritage||Perception that intergenerational relationships with nature contribute to personal and/or cultural identity.||Gould et al. (2014)|
|identity||Perception that aspects of nature are constitutive to one's sense of self. Or a perception that feelings or views about nature are part of who a person is.||Britto de Santos and Gould (2018); Knippenberg et al. (2018)|
|kinship||Feelings that ecosystem components (e.g., plants, animals, water, soil) are like “kin” or family.||Britto de Santos and Gould (2018)|
|life teaching||Perception of nature as a teacher of life lessons and values.||Gould and Lincoln (2017)|
|other||Expressions of relational value that don’t fit well into the other themes.||Emergent theme|
|partnership||A sense of working with nature to mutually benefit people and nature.||Knippenberg et al. (2018)|
|responsibility||Perception of accountability for what happens with ecosystems.||Britto de Santos and Gould (2018)|
|social bonds||Perception that nature contributes to social bonds and the identity and cohesion of human groups (such as within or between families, friendships, communities, and cultures).||Britto de Santos and Gould (2018)|
|spiritual connection||Relationships with nature are integral to one's sense of spirituality.||Gould et al. (2014)|
|stewardship (care for)||Acting to take care of ecosystems, where the act of caring itself has value.||Britto de Santos and Gould (2018)|
|general relational satisfaction||Delight in having intimate familiarity and interactions with components of nature.||Emergent theme|
Table 3. Number of relational value, empathy, and co-occurrent references across all interviews.
|Relational value||Empathy||Empathy and RV together|
|Number of discrete occurrences||667||141||141|