Health Blog

Nature Brings Out the Best in People, Cities the Worst, Study Finds

A new study suggests that natural surroundings make us more caring people, whereas cityscapes bring out our inner miser. But is it really that simple?

October 5, 2009
Will a little nature make us better people? [Credit: Luke Redmond, flickr.com]
Will a little nature make us better people? [Credit: Luke Redmond, flickr.com]

We all love nature—we put plants in our windows and parks in our cities, and what high-rise dweller doesn’t secretly yearn for a lush, green backyard? Now, a study published in the October issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin gives us one more reason to escape the urban jungle in favor of the real McCoy: Nature makes us better people.

To investigate nature’s influence on our personal values and behavior, a group of psychologists at the University of Rochester in New York had students look at slides of either natural landscapes or cityscapes. They also tested the effect of having plants in an office space.

In both experimental setups, students reported that they valued personal relationships and doing good for the community more highly after having seen a bit of green. And the more they immersed themselves in the natural experience, the less they cared about fame and fortune; they even became more generous with their money.

“These findings suggest,” the researchers wrote in their report, “that full contact with nature can have humanizing effects, fostering greater authenticity and connectedness.”

Now here is the bad news for all of us city slickers: Viewing cityscapes or hanging around a barren office made the students greedier and more selfish. “To the extent our links with nature are disrupted, we may also lose some connection with each other,” the researchers concluded.

I couldn’t agree more that nature is awesome and may give frayed nerves a welcome break. But I’m wondering if the researchers’ interpretation isn’t a bit too rosy.

First, the participants in the study were students, most of whom presumably hadn’t spent their lives toiling in the fields under a scorching sun. They might, on the other hand, have gone camping or scuba diving with friends and family, and so nature would have come to represent intimate family time and a break from work and mundane preoccupations. In other words, if you’re a logger, will trees make you focus on deep, interpersonal values, or will they make you think money in the bank?

Second, cityscapes don’t come out of a Xerox machine. I bet a view of a twilit piazza in Florence, replete with marble statues and charming cafés, would inspire different thoughts than would, say, a few wind-swept high-rises on the outskirts of Moscow. The same goes for nature (think a rabbit nibbling clover vs. flies splurging on a putrid carcass).

But even if the new results may be explained, in part, by memories linking nature to good times, or by dull architecture compared with serene landscapes, that’s no argument against greening our cities. To be sure, nature is often a beautiful sight, and it helps create a healthy environment; if it turns out to make us better people, too, all the better.

Related on Scienceline:

The neuroscience of meditation.

Are girls really meaner than boys?

The psychology of extreme sport.

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1 Comment

Human Overpopulation says:

If you set apart mental syndromes like psychopaty, that statement remains abolutely true. Ive witnessed that fenomenon along my life. However keep in mind that this is a two way effect, worst people tend to be attracted to cities, modified by another factors like employment, education, commerce. But in the end we could say cities attract and generate malevolence. And for the worst subjects anonimity is the most desireable attraction in a city, as they tend to wrongdo with less to none pressure from a community socially punishing such evil acts. In other words they can shout or insult an old lady, cross a street and noone cares or remember any longer. Do the same in a small community and the social mind will remember what you did forever, and have an opinion about you, a bad one.

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