Encountering Nature, Even on Video, Seems to Make Us More Cooperative

By Meador, Ron | MinnPost.com, June 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

Encountering Nature, Even on Video, Seems to Make Us More Cooperative


Meador, Ron, MinnPost.com


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.

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 ?shing-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. …

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