Feeling Impulsive? Head for the Forest

New research finds yet another benefit of viewing images of the natural world.
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New research finds yet another benefit of viewing images of the natural world.
(Photo: Pakhnyushcha/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Pakhnyushcha/Shutterstock)

Do you make too many impulsive decisions—eating that snack now and worrying about calories later, or buying that expensive toy and only to later realize it will break your budget?

Perhaps you need to spend more time in nature.

A first-of-its kind study, conducted at Utah State University, finds that people who looked at scenes of the natural world made less-impulsive decisions than those who viewed either buildings or simple geometrical shapes. Much research has found exposure to nature can lower stress; it now appears it also nudges us into making smarter choices.

"Exposure to scenes of natural environments resulted in significantly less impulsive decision-making. Viewing scenes of built environments and geometric shapes resulted in similar, higher levels of impulsive decision-making."

In the online journal PLoS One, a research team led by University of Montana psychologist Meredith Berry describes an experiment featuring 185 undergraduates, all of whom viewed a series of 25 photographs. Sixty-three of them saw images of nature, including forests. Fifty-nine viewed photos of buildings and city streets. The final 63 saw a series of geometric shapes.

All then took part in a task that involved choosing between hypothetical financial outcomes. They were repeatedly presented with the proposition: “Would you rather have (a specific amount of money) now, or (a different amount) in (a specific point in the future)?” The amounts changed each time the question came up anew.

This is a classic way of measuring what researchers call “delay discounting.” Choosing to receive a lower amount of money now, rather than waiting for a greater reward, reflects some degree of self-destructive impulsivity.

It’s to our advantage not to give in to that temptation—and it turns out resistance came easier for people who had just spent virtual time in the pristine woodlands.

“Exposure to scenes of natural environments resulted in significantly less impulsive decision-making,” the researchers write. “Viewing scenes of built environments and geometric shapes resulted in similar, higher levels of impulsive decision-making.”

Berry and her colleagues can only speculate about the reasons for this. They note that, in previous research, people have reported that “time seems to slow when viewing awe-eliciting scenes.” Perhaps views of massive trees that took many years to grow prompted participants to adopt a long-range perspective, reducing the allure of an immediate payoff.

In any event, this is welcome news. As the researchers note, saving the environment will require cultivating a mindset that prioritizes long-term over short-term gain.

So if you’re tempted to buy a gas-guzzler, spend a few minutes staring at an Ansel Adams photograph. You might just change your mind.

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