Maintaining a connection to nature, either through the presence of indoor plants or artwork depicting the natural environment, has been shown to decrease stress levels and stimulate healing. Newly published research suggests it may also make us better people.
A series of studies suggests immersion in nature "brings individuals closer to others, whereas human-made environments orient goals toward more selfish or self-interested ends," according to a paper posted on the Web site of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. This appears to be the first research to examine the impact of the natural world on people's values and aspirations, and its findings have intriguing implications for architects, designers and urban planners.
A team led by University of Rochester psychologist Netta Weinstein conducted three studies in which participants were shown a series of slides depicting either natural landscapes or urban settings. They looked at each slide for two minutes, while they were asked to notice the color and textures and imagine the sounds and smells of the environment pictured. They were then asked to what extent they felt involved in and engaged by the photos.
Those participating in the first study were then asked to rate the importance of four life goals, two of which were related to community and connectedness ("to have deep, enduring relationships" and "to work toward the betterment of society") and two of which were more egocentric ("to be financially successful" and "to be admired by many people").
The results: Those exposed to the nature scenes placed a higher value on community/connectedness values and a lower value on self-oriented values than those who saw the cityscapes. What's more, "as individuals were more immersed in the slides presenting natural settings, they experienced greater increases in intrinsic [community/connectedness] aspirations."
Another test confirmed these results by having participants engage in a "funds distribution" task. "As individuals were more immersed in nature slides, they were more likely to make generous decisions," the researchers write. "As they were more immersed in non-nature slides, they were less generous and greedier."
In a separate test that did not involve slides, "participants who were immersed in a lab setting with plants present reported higher valuing of intrinsic aspirations" than those in a setting devoid of living green growth.
So why would immersion in nature instill feelings of selflessness? Weinstein and her colleagues suggest the answer lies in an enhanced sense of personal autonomy. "Nature affords individuals the chance to follow their interests and reduces pressures, fears, introjects and social expectations," they write.
While conceding that more research will be necessary to confirm or refine these results, the researchers say their findings "highlight the importance of effective urban planning that incorporates green spaces and other representatives of nature."
Their findings will also be of interest to architects and interior designers. Frank Lloyd Wright's concept of bringing the outside inside may not just be a prescription for aesthetic beauty, but also for peaceful coexistence.
"Together, these findings suggest that full contact with nature can have humanizing effects," the researchers conclude. "Our results suggest that, to the extent our links with nature are disrupted, we may also lose some connection with each other."
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