Next time you're about to send off a nasty email or buy something completely unnecessary on Amazon, stop and take a look at a photo of the forest. It might just make you reconsider.
A study from researchers at Utah State University has found that visual exposure to natural environments decreases impulsiveness—even if that exposure is just an image on a computer screen inside a lab. Past studies have found that the natural environment has positive effects on attention, happiness, and mood, but this is the first piece of research to look at how natural scenes affect impulsivity.
The study used a common test of impulsivity, called delay discounting to see how participants are affected by natural scenes. The researchers tried to see whether a participant would choose to immediately receive a small reward instead of getting a larger reward later.
Almost 200 undergraduate students came to a computer lab and viewed photos of either the natural world, the built environment, or, as a control group, photos of geometric shapes. After viewing numerous photos, a choice popped up on the computer screen, asking whether they would rather have a smaller amount of money now or a larger amount later. That choice popped up multiple times for each participant, with the amount of money and time varying based on their past answers.
In the end, researchers found statistically significant evidence that people exposed to images of natural environments are more self-controlled than people exposed to images of the built environment or the control environment. "It was a brief exposure—overall, less than 10 minutes on a computer screen, not an immersion in the environment," says Kerry Jordan, one of the researchers in the study, "We know that virtual views of nature can help us be healthier and restore attention, but other studies have shown immersion works even better."
It's probable, then, that people with constant access to nature can control their impulsivity better than nature-deprived city dwellers (lots of city dwellers have access to nature too, of course). Even making small changes to an indoor office, like adding plants, could decrease impulsivity.
The Utah State researchers don't know exactly why exposure to nature cuts down on impulsivity, but they have some theories. There could a be a mood difference between people looking at natural and built environment scenes. Perhaps perceptions of time have something to do with it (people often say that time seems to slow down when they're in nature, and slowed-down time perception could make longer gratification delays seem shorter). Jordan believes the most likely possibility is our increased capacity for attention when gazing at nature—the more we pay attention, the more we can think about the consequences of our decisions.
Jordan suspects that mood doesn't play a part in the equation. "People in better moods are usually more impulsive decision-makers. If that were the case, people should have been making more impulsive decisions," she says.
Next, the researchers plan to look at the effect that time perception has on impulsivity, and what happens when you expose people to photos of nature and the built environment in succession—more like the real world.
"It's an important area of research in part because it's such an easy intervention," says Jordan.