The seashore scene is not one of Ansel Adams' famous photographs, but like all his best work, it captures a dramatic moment in time. A wave is crashing against a line of jagged rocks, spraying plumes of foam that look luminescent against the dark hillside in the background. Overhead, ominous clouds suggest it is about to rain any moment.
I can see it out of the corner of my eye as I type these words. Shortly after moving into my new office, I hung it over my desk, along with another Adams image on the opposite wall. I couldn't have told you why, exactly, except that I find them aesthetically pleasing.
But if Byoung-Suk Kweon is right, I was enhancing my emotional health without realizing it.
In a new study in the journal Environment and Behavior, the University of Michigan researcher reports the presence of art posters in the workplace — particularly ones featuring nature scenes — lowers both anger and stress levels in men.
In other words, music may soothe the savage beast, but art will assuage the angry administrative assistant.
Kweon, whose research focuses on the connection between environment and behavior, created her study in response to two unconnected lines of inquiry. A series of studies have linked positive emotions with exposure to nature. A 1999 study found nearly one out of four American workers is chronically angry at work — an emotional state that leads to a variety of health and behavioral problems.
So could exposure to nature, in the form of art posters, alleviate some of this anger? To test that hypothesis, Kweon and her colleagues created faux workplaces on the campus of Texas A&M University, where she was based at the time.
One office had no posters on the wall; the second had abstract posters; the third had a combination of abstract and nature posters; and the fourth had nature posters exclusively. The nature posters included reproductions of two works by impressionist master Claude Monet, whereas the abstracts included works by Miró and Kandinsky.
More than 200 students were recruited to participate in the experiment. Each sat down at a computer in one of the offices and performed a series of "anger- and stress-provoking" tasks, which were difficult to complete and, in many instances, "accompanied by loud beeps" announcing when a mistake had been made.
After each of these tests, participants filled out a questionnaire measuring their stress and anger levels. They weren't told until after the 30-minute session was over that the posters on the wall — which most barely noticed — were the experiment's key variable.
The results: Men in the offices with no posters reported far higher anger levels than those in the offices with posters. Those in offices with abstract, nature and mixed posters had similarly low levels of anger.
Men in the posterless offices also recorded far higher stress levels than the others. For this measurement, the type of art made a difference: Those in offices with mixed nature and abstract posters reported the least stress, followed by those with nature posters exclusively. Those in offices with abstract posters reported a higher stress level, but still significantly below those in the offices with no art at all.
For women, there was no correlation between the posters and the levels of anger and stress, perhaps because their underlying anger level was far lower than that of the men. Kweon noted that previous research showed "females are likely to express anger less readily than males," and hypothesized a different type of anger-provoking test may be needed to gauge their responses.
Kweon admits she was somewhat surprised that the abstract posters were nearly as effective as the nature posters in terms of reducing the males' stress and anger. One possible explanation: "Many of our abstract powers were playful, curvilinear, inspired by nature, and more organic than geometric formations," she said. In other words, they captured and conveyed some essential essence of the natural world.
One weakness of the study, which Kweon acknowledges, is the homogeneity of the participants. All were college students, and most were white and from the same upper-middle-class socioeconomic background. "Some people filled out the ‘racial background' question by writing 'Southerner,'" she said with a laugh.
If she can find the funding, she would love to repeat the research — this time in a real office setting, with actual workers. "It would be my dream to do that," she said.
Another interesting follow-up study, she added, would be to gauge the emotional effect of screen savers and computer wallpapers. Kweon has a screensaver on her own computer, in which colorful fish lazily swim across the screen. (She doesn't have any art posters up in her office, but for a good reason: She only recently moved from Texas A&M to the University of Michigan. "My office is now a mess, with piles of boxes.")
There are two competing explanations for the study's findings.
"Distraction theory" hypothesizes that simply redirecting people's attention away from a stressful situation — even for a few seconds — provides a valuable breather.
"Evolutionary theory" notes the natural world has been a source of comfort and sustenance to man since the species began, and suggests reconnecting with that environment promotes peaceful feelings of belonging.
Kweon believes both of these may have been in play, but she can't be sure. "The best explanation we can come up with," she said, is that art has a power we don't fully understand.
Ansel Adams once said much the same thing, noting that both art and nature contain "worlds of experience" that go "beyond science."
Added the great photographer: "The moods and qualities of nature and the revelations of great art are equally difficult to define."
And, perhaps, equally effective as an antidote to anger.