A Dose Of Nature Helps City Dwellers Fight Their Need For Instant Gratification

An experiment shows that even a simple photograph of greenery can push the brain to better consider the long-term future.

Self-centered, shortsighted, and likely to trade future gains for immediate satisfaction. That describes a great deal of human behavior. It may be the best way to change human nature is to give it a dose of actual nature—strolling through the woods or even a glimpsing green through a dingy urban window can push the brain to consider the long-term future, a new study shows.

Inspired by E.O Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, scientists recently investigated whether nature helps people better value their future. "Humans have evolved bias to prefer immediate rewards over long-term rewards," wrote the Dutch researchers at VU University in a new study. These short-term horizons underlie everything from obesity to overexploiting natural resources.

Yet a growing body of research suggests nature, even photographs of it, can exert a countervailing force on the human mind. People gravitate toward natural environments, seeking out the most abundant collections of trees, water, or mountains available to them. The affinity appears to strengthen behaviors. People who watch plants grow exhibit better spending impulse control. Inner-city girls with views of green space from their window have proved more adept at concentration, impulse inhibition, and delay of gratification.

The Dutch authors, writing in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, hypothesized that lush environments equated with abundance could lead to long-term thinking more than the "inherently unstable" and "intense social competitions" on display in cities. To test this, they asked some study participants to immerse themselves in photographs of nature and choose whether to accept 100 Euros today or a larger amount (up to 170 euros) in three months. The results were markedly different: the average "nature-conditioned" individual stopped when the future reward hit an average of 122 euros compared to 135 euros for the "urban" group. Then the experiment was repeated—this time participants walked through the urban or natural environments. The results were almost the same.

As the world urbanizes, our understanding of how nature affects our lives, and the decisions we make, may profoundly shape the kind of world we build (and imagine). As of 2010, humans were officially an urban species: More than half the world’s population had moved to cities. The UN expects that proportion to rise to 7 out of 10 by 2050.

Finding ourselves in the urban jungles of the future many mean "unleash[ing] people's innate biophilia," suggest the researchers.

[Image: Muir Forest via Shutterstock]

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  • Interesting! The article made me wonder if there is a distinction between the kinds of reflective behavior promoted by different types of green spaces - e.g. is there a distinction between manicured spaces versus wilder spaces? There is a growing body of evidence on the mental, social and physical wellbeing benefits of interaction with nature in early childhood. Richard Louv argues that many children are suffering from “nature deficit disorder” due to limited opportunities for unstructured play in wild environments. There is also evidence on the benefits of “therapeutic landscapes” including gardens and allotments for treating adults suffering poor mental and physical health. Re-connecting with nature and re-wilding parts of the city is a vital part of the sustainable development agenda. We will need to find better ways to quantify, measure and demonstrate the physical, mental and social benefits of exposure to nature as part of the broader shift from GDP to wellbeing indicators.