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Encountering nature, even on video, seems to make us more cooperative

The specific aim of this inquiry was to see if people would behave differently in a “tragedy of the commons” exercise if they had recently viewed footage of natural places.

Chief author John M. Zelenski: “Across three studies, we found consistent evidence for the idea that exposure to nature (videos) can produce cooperative behavior, which was also sustainable behavior in the context of commons dilemmas.”
REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic

Spending time in nature – even via video – promotes the cooperative, self-restraining, sustainable behaviors that are increasingly critical to reversing patterns of environmental destruction, according to a paper published in this month’s Journal of Environmental Psychology.

This is not just another in the long (and interesting) line of studies showing that being outdoors may enhance mental health – making you feel happier, enhancing your attention span, improving your score on the depression inventory, etc.

Rather, the specific aim of this inquiry was to see if people would behave differently in a “tragedy of the commons” exercise – a fishing simulation in which they could choose between maximizing short-term personal gain and optimizing the long-term sustainability of a shared resource – if they had recently viewed footage of natural places.

And in significant proportion, the nature watchers picked sustainability – even when the videos shifted in theme from beautiful landscapes to less pleasant portrayals of flooding and of wolves preying on elk.

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A second group, who “went fishing” after watching non-nature videos of built environments, was more likely to behave in ways that maximized personal profit while depleting the shared resource more rapidly.

Interestingly, the subjects’ moods didn’t matter much, and neither did their underlying levels of trust in fellow human beings. It’s what the two groups saw — not how they felt about it, or about other people — that seemed to drive their behavior.

Which makes one think that maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea when Gov. Mark Dayton suggested holding the special legislative session in a tent on the Capitol lawn.

A Canadian ‘Happy Lab’

Chief author of the new paper is John M. Zelenski of the psychology department at Carleton University in Ottawa; he directs a research division called the Happiness Laboratory, or Happy Lab, which studies many dimensions of happiness, personality and well-being.

In “Cooperation Is in Our Nature: Nature Exposure May Promote Cooperative and Environmentally Sustainable Behavior,” he summarizes the considerable research showing relationships between people’s feelings of connectedness with nature and various pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, not to mention higher levels of general happiness.

However, Zelenksi writes, “past research linking nature with sustainable behavior is mostly correlational, qualitative, or relies on subjective self-reports. In this research we take an experimental approach by manipulating exposure to nature and observing effects on a laboratory analog of sustainable behavior: a fishing-themed commons dilemma.”

Like so much psychology research, the experimental design involved recruiting undergraduates (111 of them) and placing them in a setting with tight controls over their experience and responses.

Cooperation was measured by their behavior in a game, or “microworld simulation,” called FISH 3.1:

  • Each player collected a dime for every fish they caught, but had to pay a nickel each time they left or returned to the dock, so catching at least two fish was necessary to make a profit in each harvest “season.”
  • The players were told that the “ocean” held 50 fish at the outset, that 15 would be added at the start of each new season, and that they were up against three competitors for the harvest.
  • As the game went on, each player got updates about his or her own harvest and profits, as well as competitors’ catches and the number of fish remaining; however, they weren’t told that the game would end after 15 seasons unless all the fish were gone before that. (They also weren’t told they were playing against computerized competitors, not other undergrads.)

Preparation via video

Before starting the game, each player watched one of two 12-minute videos prepared for the experiment.

One was all about natural beauty, featuring landscapes photographed for the BBC series “Planet Earth,” with no human structures visible. The other showed architectural splendor in the built environment of New York City, photographed for Landmark Media’s “Walks With an Architect” series. (Neither video said anything about fish.)

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At various points in the experimental process, players were given questionnaires to measure their overall mood, their feelings of connectedness with nature and their level of trust in other people; these were timed to let the researchers isolate reaction to the videos from other behavioral influences.

Players who watched the architecture video made significantly more money, but by season 15, nearly half of the fisheries – 49.09 percent – had been emptied of fish.

Players who watched the nature video, on the other hand, pushed the fisheries to extinction only 28.57 percent of the time. They also reported more enjoyment from watching their video – but on the other measures, including trust and overall mood, there wasn’t much difference between the groups.

Variations on the theme

In a second study round, a third video option was added – an iTunes visualizer animation with a Grammar Girls podcast for sound. Again, the nature video against seemed to stimulate a more cooperative approach; there was little difference between the groups that watched the architecture video and iTunes animation.

And in a third round, short video clips were used, drawing from the offerings on YouTube, with content ranging from pleasant to unpleasant in the researchers’ estimate.

The nature clips featured an old-growth forest, a flooded landscape with some damaged houses, and footage of wolves attacking elk and antagonizing a bison and a bear. The non-nature clips showed the Las Vegas strip (which, I just have to say, is not everybody’s idea of an appealing built environment), and a decrepit, abandoned house.

“Across three studies,” Zelenksi writes, “we found consistent evidence for the idea that exposure to nature (videos) can produce cooperative behavior, which was also sustainable behavior in the context of commons dilemmas.”

Environmental issues are classic examples of social dilemmas, and cooperation is essential in solving them. In our lab analog, exposure to nature increased sustainable fishing and helped determine whether or not fish stocks collapsed. These effects appear to be due to nature per se as both built and neutral control comparisons produced similar results.

Moreover, although pleasant moods are typically associated with nature, they did not explain its effect on cooperation. Results held using statistical mood controls, and when we directly manipulated pleasant and unpleasant representations of nature.

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Acknowledging that this experiment tested only the immediate effects of short-term exposure, Zelenski says it’s reasonable to speculate that prolonged or repeated encounters with nature – or, at least, nature images – could create stable, long-term shifts toward “nature relatedness” in human psyches, and possibly greater investment in actions that tend to sustain and protect the natural world.

And he thinks the work has possible implications for how environmentalists conduct advocacy campaigns:

Conservation activists have long used nature imagery in persuasive appeals, but recent messaging around climate change often prefers economic or security arguments. Given the effects of priming money vs. nature, nature imagery may produce more persuasive appeals or better reminders to behave sustainably – environmental problems are social dilemmas, and cooperation is key to sustainable solutions.