The news stories of the last week or so from the Ukraine, Syria, Gaza and elsewhere remind us that nothing in this world is as wantonly divisive, destructive and tragic as unleashed human self-interest.
As I tried to come to terms with the horror and obscenity of it all, I drew solace of sorts from an unexpected source – a recent research report in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.
The report concludes with these comforting remarks:
Human civilization has had a profound and ancient relationship with the natural world. In this research, we asked the question, does nature help promote the greater good? Our studies reveal that it does.
The studies were conducted by five psychologists led by Jai Wei Zhang from the University of California, Berkeley. Zhang and his colleagues were interested specifically in the effects of natural beauty on kindness, empathy and other positive social behaviour (or what psychologists call “prosociality”).
They noted that several contemporary philosophers have positively linked beauty and prosociality. Simone Weil and Elaine Scarry, for example, claim that people experience a “de-centring” of the self when viewing something beautiful. In a similar vein, Iris Murdoch said that beauty leads to what she called “unselfing”, the process of transcending self-interest to become more generous and kind.
These views line up very nicely with recent neurological findings indicating that encounters with beauty activate brain regions associated with empathy, openness and other social responses.
Zhang and co reasoned that if beauty can shift perspectives away from the self and towards others, then the greater the beauty the more the shift. They undertook their research to test this idea and to determine whether or not any such shift was affected by individual differences in people’s openness to natural beauty. They were able to measure such differences using a questionnaire (the Engagement with Beauty Scale) that discloses how much a person is oriented towards, and aroused by, various forms of beauty, including natural beauty.
To measure prosociality the researchers used questionnaires covering
- agreeableness (being considerate, compassionate, kind, helpful, trusting, conciliatory, well-tempered, etc)
- perspective taking (able to understand another’s point-of-view)
- empathic concern (having feelings of warmth and compassion towards others, especially those who are vulnerable in some way)
They were also able to assess the generosity aspect of prosociality using “games” (Dictator and the Trust Game) that measure a person’s willingness to share and to display trust.
But not content with paper-and pencil measures of prosociality, the researchers created a scenario that enabled “real-life” kindness and generosity to be observed and assessed (about which there is more below).
A major challenge for the researchers was to devise materials that would evoke two broad subjective responses to natural beauty – “more beautiful” and “less beautiful”. This involved extensive trialling and assessment of images to produce two slide presentations, each of 10 images. The top pictures in the pairs below are examples of the “more beautiful” images and the lower ones the “less beautiful”.
The researchers took steps to ensure that the pairs of pictures were comparable in terms of the objective dimensions of beauty such as symmetry, proportion and complexity.
For the last of the four studies in their project, the researchers used nursery plants (also selected after an extensive trialling process) rather than images to create the conditions of “more” and “less beautiful”. Participants in this final study were randomly allocated to a room where they were seated in clear view of either an arrangement of the “more beautiful” plants or one made from the “less beautiful”.
After they had completed a questionnaire measuring their current level of positive emotion, the participants were asked to volunteer for a simple altruistic task – making origami cranes to be sent as greetings to victims of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The number of cranes folded served as a measure of helping.
So what did this well planned and executed project discover? Three things basically:
- participants who were more open to the beauty of nature were also more open to other people
- exposure to more (rather than less) beautiful images of nature led participants to be more generous and trusting
- exposure to more (rather than less) beautiful plants in a laboratory room led people to exhibit increased helping behaviour.
The project also found that
- the more sensitive to natural beauty people were the more likely it was that exposure to beautiful nature would increase their prosocial behaviour, and
- beautiful nature makes people more prosocial by stimulating their feel-good emotions.
The take-away message from the report is that natural beauty is a rich source of goodness for the human mind and soul. As Rachel Carson, one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, said, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts”. John Muir, the 19th century pioneer conservationist, naturalist and writer was absolutely right when he declared, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul”.