Meadow on approach to Little Arethusa, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.
About a month ago I started to rejuvenate a horribly conceived garden at the front of a property I own with my sister. It was a project we wanted to tackle since we purchased the property, but we had other priorities that needed our attention before we could shift our focus to the garden. Once we started working on the garden, neighbours we had never met dropped by to show their support and offer advice and help. They were excited to see some natural beauty being added to the neighbourhood. There is recent research suggesting that our neighbours’ willingness to help may be a result of their exposure to natural beauty.
Researchers at the Universities of California and Southern California found that exposure to scenes of natural beauty increased prosocial behaviours (behaviours that benefit society such as volunteering). Jia Wei Zhang led the team that conducted four studies investigating how exposure to beautiful nature affected their participants’ prosocial tendencies.
Study 1 consisted of 846 participants with an average age 40 (42 percent were female and 75 percent Caucasian). The study examined if differences in prosociality were linked to an individual’s tendency to perceive natural beauty (PNB). The researchers measured their participants’ PNB, agreeableness, empathy, and connectedness to nature. The results showed that participants with high PNB also reported more prosocial behaviours.
Study 2 had two parts: a pilot study to determine more and less beautiful images of nature, and a study that used the images to assess if natural beauty influenced prosociality in the dictator game¹. The pilot study consisted of 28 participants (58 percent female with an average age of 41) who were shown 10 randomly selected slides of more and less beautiful image for six seconds each. The participants then rated the slides. The slides were then sorted into two one-minute slide presentations of either more or less beautiful images of nature. One hundred twenty eight individuals with an average age of 34 (53 percent were women and 75 percent Caucasian) were randomly assigned to view either the more or less beautiful images of nature slide presentations. Participants rated the images after viewing and then completed a questionnaire on positive emotions, the dictator game, and PNB. The results showed that participants who were assigned to the more beautiful images of nature group were more generous in the dictator game and more positive overall. Furthermore, participants who had high PNB were more generous after viewing beautiful images of nature than participants with lower PNB. The authors conclude that viewing images of beautiful nature creates positive emotions, which in turn facilitates greater prosocial behaviour. This effect was more pronounced in participants apt to perceive natural beauty in their daily lives.
In Study 3 the researchers changed the slide presentations to see if different images elicited different responses. Similar to Study 2, a pilot study of 28 participants with an average age of 41 (46 percent were women and 79 percent Caucasian) aided in creating two one-minute slide presentations. The researchers used a different measure than Study 2 to assess prosocial behaviour: the Trust Game². As in Study 2, the authors examined the mediating effects of positive emotions and PNB on prosocial behaviour after viewing beautiful nature. The researchers recruited 112 participants with an average age of 31 (27 percent were female and 72 percent Caucasian). The authors concluded that the results of Study 3 replicated their findings in Study 2: the more beautiful images of nature group exhibited more prosocial behaviour and more positive emotions than the less beautiful images of nature group, and participants with high PNB and in the more beautiful images of nature group had the greatest prosocial behaviour.
Study 4 was also a two-part study where a pilot study of 30 participants with an average age of 39 (63 percent were female and 77 percent Caucasian) assessed more or less beautiful images of plants. The chosen plants were then placed in a lab where 45 participants with an average age of 21 (64 percent were female and 77 percent Caucasian) were randomly assigned to either the more or less beautiful plants group. The participants then completed a positive emotion questionnaire followed by a request to assist in creating origami cranes to show support for those who had suffered in the earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan in 2011. The results of Study 4 showed that participants in the more beautiful plant group exhibited more prosocial behaviours – i.e. they folded more cranes than participants in the less beautiful plant group. Similar to the results of the other three studies, the authors found that natural beauty elicited more positive emotions and participants with high PNB, and in the more beautiful plant group, exhibited the greatest prosocial behaviour.
Taken as a whole, all four studies show that the positive emotions created by more beautiful images, and an individual’s tendency to perceive natural beauty, contribute dramatically to that individual’s prosociality. It’s as simple as hanging a picture of a beautiful image of nature, placing a beautiful plant in a room, or maybe even creating a beautiful garden.
On a personal note, I question what the participants in this study perceive as “nature.” I hate when articles use dictionary definitions, but I believe it is apropos. Merriam-Webster defines nature as “the physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people.” Some, if not all, of the more beautiful images of nature and plants – the authors did not supply images of the plants they used so I’m speculating here – in Zhang’s study have been manipulated or “made” by humans; for example, manicured lawns, genetically modified plants, and suppressed forces of nature such as fire. It’s interesting how the samples provided in the study of more beautiful images of nature were of what looked like nature controlled by humans and the less beautiful images of nature were of nature that looked overgrown and wild. What do these studies say about humans and how we perceive our place in nature?
Rodney Steadman 04 August 2014
¹In this game, participants were informed that they had been paired with an anonymous partner who was also completing the study. Participants were told that they had been randomly assigned to the role of the “Sender.” Each participant was told that they had been given 10 points, each of which would equal an additional 5 cents in their final payout. Participants were then informed that they could give any amount (including zero) to their partner, and that their final compensation would depend on how many points they had remaining. Partici- pants were further told that their partner would have no strategic input into the game’s outcome and that their responses in the game would remain anonymous (all participants received the full compensation in the end). Higher allocation reflected higher levels of generosity (Zhang, 2014, p.66).
²In this game, participants read a cover story in which they were told that they had 30 points (with each point equaling one cent) to play a game with a randomly selected partner who was also completing the survey at the same time. Participants were instructed that they could choose to give a portion of their points to their partner and that their compensation at the end of the study would depend on how many points they had remaining. However many points they allocated to their partner would then be tripled, and their partner would have the opportunity to give back as many points as they would like to the participant (Berg et al., 1995; Piff et al., 2010; Saslow et al., 2013). In actuality, participants were not paired with a partner and thus only completed the allocation portion of the trust game (all participants received the full compensation in the end) (Zhang, 2014, p. 68).
Zhang J, Piff P, Iyer R, Koleva S, & Keltner D (2014). An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality Journal of Environmental Psychology, 37, 61-72 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.11.008