Jiaying Zhao, PhD

    Assistant Professor, Canada Research Chair (t2)

Resource scarcity

A hallmark of sustainability is the balance between demand (i.e., how much is needed) and capacity (i.e., how much is available). In this line of work, we examine the cognitive and behavioral consequences of resource scarcity where demand exceeds capacity, with the goal of explaining why the poor engage in counter-productive behaviors that perpetuate the condition of scarcity.

To mitigate the impact of scarcity on the poor, we develop behavioral interventions to promote cognitive performance and behavioral outcomes in low-income individuals. We are currently collaborating with the New Leaf Project, the StreetoHome Foundation, and the WorkWithUs Foundation, to improve cognitive, social, housing, and employment outcomes in low-income individuals.

Environmental behavior

An urgent environmental crisis is the depletion of natural resources. It is thus imperative to conserve diminishing resources and reduce demand. A challenge for conservation, however, is that people are often unaware of the amount of resources being used. To address this issue, we use real-time visual feedback to reduce water and electricity consumption in residential and office buildings. In addition to the conservation of water and electricity, we examine how preferences, attitudes, and messaging determine public actions to conserve biodiversity.

Another critical environmental problem is the increasing volume of solid waste that directly causes pollution and health problems around the world. Waste reduction depends on not only the provision of recycling bins, but also the accurate execution of sorting actions. To increase recycling and composting rates, we are currently conducting a series of field experiments that examine the role of convenience, signage, and knowledge in sorting behaviors.

Environmental cognition

Environmental actions can be driven by how people perceive their environment. In this line of work, we examine how perceptions of the physical environment determine subjective wellbeing and subsequent actions, using an experience-sampling method that allows us to model how wellbeing changes over space and time and to identify environmental predictors of wellbeing.

In the context of global climate change, we are interested in how people perceive climate change evidence, and specifically, what cognitive, motivational, and sociocultural factors shape the prioritization and the interpretation of climate evidence. This helps inform the communication of climate science.

Statistical cognition

Our understanding of the environment fundamentally depends on basic cognitive processes, such as vision, attention, and learning. Here we want to understand how the cognitive system is able to make sense of the highly complex environment. Given external inputs, the visual system is sensitive to the presence of regularities and is remarkably efficient at extracting statistical information from the environment. Such extraction of regularities is useful because it reduces the amount of information to be further processed.

In this line of work, we demonstrate that the extraction of regularities can direct the allocation of attention, merge the representations of individual objects, facilitate inductive learning and generalization, promote transitive inference, and improve cognitive control.