Yukon College Papers by Murray Lundberg, 1993-1994
"Visual Recognition Capacity During
Outdoor Recreation Experiences"
October 13, 1993
I was attracted by the title of Dr. Hammitt's article because of my own extensive hiking experience under widely varying conditions, and my background as an adult-education photography instructor for the past six years. From that perspective, I found the research, or at least the facts presented in the article, while interesting, to be both conceptually and methodologically simplistic. Hammitt has made some rather sweeping generalizations on the basis of data gathered at one site with very limited variety, from hikers that he has very little social or personality information on.
Hammitt's initial comments regarding the purpose of the research, particularly the concise quote from Leopold that "to promote perception (and I might add remembrance) is the only truly creative part of recreational engineering", set up the
possibility of a very interesting model arising from this research, but the initial choice of Trillium Gap Trail as the study site negated much of that potential. Hammitt advises that he felt that the trail "would generally attract the average type of hiker, as well as those with low or high hiking experience" because of "its diversity in trail environment, heavy visitor use, and low hiking difficulty rating" (p.657). Although hiking experiences in the northeastern United States are different than in other areas of the continent due to both topography and population, I feel that a 3-mile round trip trail is unlikely to
attract a wide variety of hikers. The fact that it has a waterfall as a destination makes it even more likely that the trail would attract casual walkers rather than serious hikers, and that those on the trail would be destination-oriented, rather than being particularly interested in experiences along the way.
Data was apparently gathered on hikers' experience level, but no indication is given in the article as to the amount of detail in the questionnaire. To be significant enough that it should be able to influence "the designing and managing of recreational environments" (p.669), this facet of the research would have to be very detailed, not simply "years of total hiking experience". To be able to differentiate between hikers and walkers (trail length, trail topography?), between nature lovers and what are generally termed peak-baggers (miles per hour, vertical distance?), between hikers interested in a nature experience or a social one (number in the group?) would not be easy, but would provide information that should be considered vital to proper management of our parks.
The general lack of credibilty of this research is aggravated by Hammitt's introduction of some very questionable 'facts':
Humans have the unique capacity among organisms to process environmental information, to code it to memory, and to recall-incorporate it when responding to future environmental situations. (p.653) The importance of memory and recall to total enjoyment of a recreational experience is adequately demonstrated by the universal inclusion of the camera as part one one's standard recreation gear .. .(p.654)
The first statement seems to me to be absurd coming from a biologist, the second is definitely not my experience (I estimate that less than 25% of hikers carry cameras).
The basic organization of Hammitt's experiment seems to be well thought out, with large numbers (750) surveyed, on various days of the week, and sorted into 5 groups receiving different treatments to cross-check data on both hikers' preference for, and familiarity with various scenes. The small details of the treatments leave many questions unanswered, however.
The validity of the photographs are particularly questionable from several aspects. First, "visitor-employed photography" is not universally accepted as a means of showing what really attracts people's attention, except in the most blatant way
("people tend to photograph the most spectacular and characteristic aspects of an environment" [p.667]). The subtleties that can enhance or ruin a recreational experience are seldom captured on film, except by those hikers who are also at at least the advanced-amateur level of photography. This is largely due to the often-proven fact that, though all hikers will be presented with very similar sensations on a particular trail, the perceptions will be quite different because of past experiences (training), and the ability to put those perceptions on film will be very different. Many of the photographs taken may have been as much to finish off the roll of film and complete the chore
(although there was no specified number of photographs that needed to be taken) as because the scene recorded meant anything to the hiker.
The second, and much more complex and potentially problematic, is the matter of the presentation of the photographs as 2"x3" black and white prints, 8 to a page. Scientists do not know if the brain will process a black-and-white image in the same way that it will a live sensation, but since different receptors in the eyes (rods and cones) are relaying messages to at least some different neurons in the visual primary cortex, it seems unlikely. Having 8 photographs on each page could only compound that error. Perhaps colour slides on a large screen would come closer to triggering the same responses as the actual experience.
Two other items in the construction of the photo questionnaire leave unanswered questions. I found it very curious that Hammitt would comment that the questionnaire had "an attractive colored cover" (p.659). Does this have any significance? Control photographs from other areas were not included, as any properly-designed experiment should have: why not?
Installation of interpretive signage was a part of the research that particularly interested me, but it, too, was not explained in any detail: the signs were placed "at certain locations" (p.660). Without knowing where the signs were placed and why, the significance of any data regarding them is very limited, particularly given the erratic nature of the figures given (Table 2).
Given the rather simplistic nature of the research, it is not surprising that the conclusions reached are very generalized, in some cases seem to be made to fit pre-existing notions, and seem to be a request for future government funding more than breaking any new ground in knowledge.
Good review. Well thought out critique.
See a pdf of the paper.