We’ve all seen the studies that show that spending more time in nature can improve health. But how does it affect the way we interact with each other? A new study took a look at this relationship and found that we might have a kinder, gentler society if we all just spent a little more time outside.
The research, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, looked at the link between experiencing nature and the way humans interact with one another. For the study, researchers — led by psychologist John M. Zelenski from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada — asked college undergrad students to watch a short video and then play a sustainability-themed game.
Some of the students watched a nature video, such as the BBC’s “Planet Earth,” while others watched documentaries about New York City’s urban architecture. After watching the video, the students played a game in which a group of people decide how many fish to catch over the course of a number of “seasons.” In the game, players must pay 5 cents to catch a fish, but they receive 10 cents for every fish caught. Their ocean pool initially contains 50 fish, with regeneration occurring at a fixed rate over the seasons.
The idea behind the game is that the students need to learn how to make a profit from fishing while still leaving a sustainable level of fish in the water for the future. The students played against the computer’s simulated fishers and were told to play “cooperatively,” — in other words, not to get greedy about their profits but to try to share the fish in the sea so that the population did not go extinct.
Researchers found that the students who watched the nature-based video harvested significantly fewer fish than those who watched the urban documentary. “By season 15, 49.09% of the architecture condition’s oceans went extinct, compared to 28.57% in the Planet Earth condition,” wrote the authors.
To tease out the relationship further, researchers performed another study — this time using nature videos that documented a forest, a pack of wolves hunting, and a destructive flood. The architecture video included an exciting Las Vegas clip and that of an old, run-down house. The idea was to show pleasant and unpleasant scenes for both movie types.
Once again, the students who watched the nature videos made more sustainable choices in the fishing game than those that watched videos about the built environment. “These effects do not depend on nature’s pleasantness,” noted the authors.
The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney suggests that climate change advocates utilize this link between nature and cooperation by using more nature-based messages, rather than economic, to promote their cause. Following this theory, environmentalists should worry less about advancing their causes using political or economic messages and more about using nature-based messages.
The implications for this study could be huge. Particularly considering that the students in the study acted more sustainably simply by watching nature videos. Just imagine how they would have been if they had actually gone outdoors. So much might be solved with a walk in the woods.