Connecting with nature just feels good. Nothing matches the feeling of serenity experienced when taking a quiet walk in the woods, listening to water flow over rocks in a stream, or taking in the enormity of a beautiful panoramic natural view. Obviously, in the moment, such tranquil settings do wonders for us. But does connecting with nature have longer-term effects by carrying over into other aspects of our lives after this exposure to nature? And how would this happen? Does nature affect our mood or our motivation to act prosocially?
It’s hard to conduct empirical work that addresses these questions directly, but a team of researchers recently created a series of three clever laboratory experiments mimicking real world dilemmas to provide help determine whether connecting with nature affects our future behavior.1
Study participants were asked to play a “fishing game”, an environmentally-themed computer task that had both elements of cooperation and competition in the task. Essentially, participants had to choose between elements of conservation (maintaining the fish population) and self-gain (making a profit off of the fishing). The participants, whose opponent was the computer, had to find the ‘best’ balance for how they played the game. While they were encouraged to play cooperatively so that the fish would not go extinct from overfishing, they also had to weigh their own profit potential (i.e., they would pay a small fee to catch a fish but receive a larger amount back from every fish caught). Essentially the behaviors involved in the game promoted either sustainability or greed.
Importantly, the researchers separated study participants into two groups, each of which was exposed to a slightly different video prior to playing the fishing game. One group watched a nature video (in two experiments, a video about the Earth; in one experiment, a video promoting positive emotion vs. a video promoting negative emotion) before playing the game, whereas the other group in all experiments watched neutral (architectural-themed) videos before playing the game.
Did watching the nature video affect how the participants played the game? Indeed it did! Participants exposed to the nature video behaved more cooperatively than did those participants exposed to the neutral architectural video. This increase in cooperative behavior occurred regardless of the type of nature scene viewed, whether it was the Earth video or one promoting positive or negative emotion. Thus, it was not the mood elicited by being in nature, simply that it was a connection with nature. And keep in mind that those in the nature video group simply watched a video of nature – they weren’t actually exposed to ‘real’ nature situations. Furthermore, those watching nature videos before the game were less likely to experience fish “extinction” (in the experimental condition in which there were many rounds of the game) than those watching the neutral videos.
This research has big implications for how we get along with each other (and nature) and the role of nature in the decisions we make. The findings suggest that connecting with nature primes us to act in ways that are generally more considerate of the ecosystem (and by extension, others with whom we share a planet) others and can drive us to become less self-centered. We see how our actions can have an effect on things greater than ourselves. Granted, this study focused on individuals’ behaviors while “playing” a computer as an opponent; imagine if there were more human interaction involved in the game or the interaction, like communicating directly with another person. Or if this game took place after a real-life connection with nature (and not just a brief video), like after a restorative hike in the woods.
1Zelenski, J.M., Dopko, R.L., Capaldi, C.A. (2015). Cooperation is in our nature: Nature exposure may promote cooperative and environmentally sustainable behavior. Journal of Environmental Psychology 42, 24-31.
Marni Amsellem, Ph.D. (Clinical Psychology, Washington University in St. Louis) is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in health psychology. She is a research consultant with hospitals, organizations, and corporations, as well as a practitioner. Her research interests include how physical health and health-related behaviors affect individuals and their relationships, and vice versa. You can reach her via twitter @smartpsychreads.