Kenneth Worthy Ph.D.

The Green Mind

Cooperation Is Natural

The parties in the Iran nuclear negotiations should take a break in nature.

Posted Mar 31, 2015

 CC0 Public Domain / FAQ Free for commercial use / No attribution required
Source: License: CC0 Public Domain / FAQ Free for commercial use / No attribution required

Various authors have trumpeted the benefits of nature contact. Perhaps most famously the journalist Richard Louv has popularized findings about how children need to play in nature as they grow up to achieve healthy personal development. In his book Last Child in the Woods, he discusses various ailments that may result when children have inadequate contact with nature.

Louv’s findings agree well with the biophilia hypothesis—that we have a genetically encoded, emotional need to affiliate with nature and other living things. According to Stephen R. Keller, a professor of social ecology, it’s important to take into consideration the biophilia hypothesis when we design our buildings and built landscapes. These structures must foster contact with nature. Biophilia means that children have something like a “genetic blueprint,” and genes are turned on or off depending on the physical environment that children spend time interacting in. Accordingly, children must engage extensively with the natural world—repeatedly and in various ways—to mature into whole, healthy persons.[1] People lacking significant nature contact in their youth may be at a disadvantage.

Various studies have also shown that nature contact—something as simple as going out for a brief walk in the woods—can benefit people directly in their everyday tasks. One recent study showed that students learned better in a classroom containing simple natural elements—think potted plants and aquariums with fish. Students in a classroom without any natural elements scored significantly lower on a test of knowledge taught during the class.[2]

Just last month a study appeared that seems to demonstrate an even more remarkable result of nature contact—even when it involves merely watching a nature video. In a study by researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, participants who watched a nature video exhibited significantly more cooperative behavior compared with those who didn’t. Participants who watched the nature videos not only played more cooperatively in a game about resource management that the researchers had set up, but they also responded more cooperatively to survey questions designed to measure “social value orientation” and indicated greater willingness to engage in environmentally sustainable behaviors.[3] These findings concur with various other findings that have suggested a link between nature connection and “prosocial” and environmentally sustainable behaviors.

The researchers established through experimental procedure that the results were not due to some simple explanation such as putting the participants who watched the nature video in a better mood. Something more fundamental seems to be going on.

Consider how simple and powerful these effects are: Play in nature as a youth for a more complete, mature, and healthy development as a person. Experience nature contact in the classroom, go out and take a walk in nature, or even just watch a nature video, and enjoy better learning; more cooperative, prosocial behavior; and more pro-environmental choices.

As major world powers meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, to try to stem the development of nuclear weaponry in Iran, they might benefit from a little outdoors time in parks and forests, viewing streams and clouds in the sky. As these studies (and many people’s personal experience) suggest, doing so could lead them to more cooperative behavior and the chance for a viable agreement.

Taking in nature reminds us that there is more to life than the competitive struggle, that we are part of a much bigger picture of a thriving, living world and cosmos. It refreshes our minds to make them more receptive to learning new information and to appreciating other people’s perspectives and positions. Nature experience can help break down the us-them dichotomy that sustains conflict and instead promote common-good behavior that sustains people and nature.

My book: Invisible Nature

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My environmental blog: Finding the Human Place in Nature

Read more of my posts: The Green Mind

[1] Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, eds., The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993. Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen, and Martin L. Mador, eds., Biophilic Design: the Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. New York: John Wiley, 2008.

[2] Luke James Holden and Tom Mercer, “Nature in the Learning Environment: Exploring the Relationship Between Nature, Memory, and Mood,” Ecopsychology. December 2014, 6(4): 234-240. doi:10.1089/eco.2014.0034.

[3] John M. Zelenski, Raelyne L. Dopko, and Colin A. Capaldi, “Cooperation is in our nature: Nature exposure may promote cooperative and environmentally sustainable behavior,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 42 (2015) 24-31.