How Nature Makes You More Cooperative
I have a lot of friends that love the outdoors. Hiking, check out trails, rock climbing, and biking.
Although I don’t frequent the outdoors as much as I did in my youth, I still enjoy it.
I don’t even think I know anyone that hates the outdoors. They may dislike camping or fishing, but they certainly don’t hate nature.
In the last few years there’s been a lot of research about how nature affects our physical and mental health. John Zelenski is a researcher from the University of Carelton that has recently added to this area.
John runs a lab – appropriately named the Happy Lab – which takes a look at how emotions and environmental factors affect our thinking processes.
His study – recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology – ran a number of experiments that showed how nature makes you more cooperative. And possibly better citizens.
Our Cooperative Nature
John’s research consisted of 3 parts that examined how watching a video of nature would affect a person’s behavior in a controlled environment.
In the experiment, subjects would play a game where they could choose between short term personal gains or longer term sustainability of shared resources. Something that requires a bit of cooperation, otherwise everyone ends up losing.
John and his team sum up the results in the paper:
“Across three studies, we found consistent evidence for the idea that exposure to nature (videos) can produce cooperative behavior, which was also sustainable behavior in the context of commons dilemmas”
Keep Calm and Cooperate
For many people, being outdoors has a natural calming effect. Nature has been linked to improved mood in other studies. So you might think that people who are in good moods would probably be more likely to cooperate. I certainly did.
The team found that this wasn’t the case. They explain:
“Moreover, although pleasant moods are typically associated with nature, they did not explain its effect on cooperation. Results held using statistical mood controls, and when we directly manipulated pleasant and unpleasant representations of nature.”
The passage refers to the fact that there were benefits even when the videos showed a more chaotic view of nature. This included scenes of a wolf pack killing an elk and floods.
In short, people’s mood didn’t have much of an effect.
The research has some immediate impact.
Most notably, how environmental campaigns are managed. Instead of focusing on economic arguments, the use of nature images might be more effective with the right message. Here’s what the team says:
“Given the effects of priming money vs. nature, nature imagery may produce more persuasive appeals or better reminders to behave sustainably – environmental problems are social dilemmas, and cooperation is key to sustainable solutions.”
Other research often uses pictures of nature as a control condition. These images may have more of an impact on mental states than first thought. So studies that have used visual imagery of nature may need to rethink how their results may have been impacted.
Just Act Natural
Improving your mood is great. Feeling relaxed is nice too. To me, this research seems to be more next level.
When we stay indoors, there may be a disconnect with the environment that supports us. We forget how important it is, which could be a problem. Here’s John again:
“That is, when humans do not feel like they are part of larger ecosystems, they may be less inclined to protect the natural environment.”
We’ll see if further research in the area can be validated in the future. In closing they write:
“Collectively, results suggest that exposure to nature may increase cooperation, and, when considering environmental problems as social dilemmas, sustainable intentions and behavior”
And who doesn’t want more of that in the world?