Nature and Compassion

I've written before about the powerful mental benefits of communing with nature - it leads to more self-control, increased working memory, lower levels of stress and better moods - but a new study by psychologists at the University of Rochester find that being exposed to wildlife also makes us more compassionate. Nature might be red in tooth and claw, but even a glimpse of greenery can make us behave in kinder, gentler ways.

The study consisted of several experiments with 370 different subjects. In each experiment, people were exposed to either natural settings (pristine lakes, wooded forests, remote deserts) or man-made environments (cityscapes, skyscrapers and highways). They were then tested for a variety of "prosocial" behaviors, such as compassion and generosity. For instance, two of the experiments used a simple trust task, in which a person is given a $5 prize and told that they could share their prize with an anonymous stranger, who would then be given an additional $5. (There was no guarantee that the second person would return any of the winnings.)

The scientists found that subjects exposed to nature were significantly more likely to open their wallets. Furthermore, increased exposure to nature led to an increased willingness to share with strangers.

The question, of course, is why a mere glimpse of nature could lead to behavioral changes. The authors concoct a variety of clever hypotheses, including the possibility that nature "helps connect people to their authentic selves". (For instance, subjects who focused on landscapes and plants reported a greater sense of personal autonomy, at least as measured by the following statement: "Right now, I feel like I can be myself".) According to the scientists, our "authentic selves" - and not the alienated, artificial selves crowded into 21st century cities - are more likely to exhibit the primal traits of hunter-gather society, in which we depended on each other for survival. I'm not entirely convinced, as I generally avoid explanations that cobble together existentialism and untestable evolutionary psychology.

Another possibility, of course, is that cities are stressful places, and that nature makes us more compassionate because we're surrounded by tranquil beauty. When we're free from the helter-skelter of the urban street, filled with reminders of work and pressure and time and money, we can lapse into a more sensitive kind of cognition, more attuned to the needs and feelings of others. Because we're not overwhelmed by strangers we can take the time to notice the individual face. As usual, Emerson got it right: "Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience."


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Shakespeare often uses natural settings (typically a forest) for the transformative effects they have on his characters, ultimately restoring balance and wisdom in their lives. Wacky things may happen in the woods (think Midsummer Night's Dream), but the characters emerge the better for their contact with the wild.

By William Forward (not verified) on 01 Oct 2009 #permalink

Interesting study. Wonder how the same test would work after people had sex. Or spent a similar amount of time, without distraction, in a quiet place in their home or after that had gardened that afternoon, or had a great run, bike ride, or short nap. If stress reduction is the underlying factor, then stress reducing activities should work - nature or not. My wife gets slightly more irritable after a walk in the woods because she believes she has tramped through a zoology of unseen germs. Her first desire is to shower after a nature encounter.

My main thought would be to connect the experience of nature with perspective (in the way Damasio would use it, as an attribute of consciousness) particularly its more contemplative aspects. Perspective might heighten empathy for others and the impact of social emotions. To me, these ideas seem easier to connect with concepts found in neuroscience than with more ephemeral notions about the 'authentic self' and so on.

Hiking or sitting in a large natural tract of land removes us from the noise of civilization and noise has been shown to be a powerful stressor. More on this in the book "Urban Stress," by Glass & Singer: ISBN 0122860500.

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 01 Oct 2009 #permalink

...or maybe a mere glimpse of city life can make us more miserly? Why is the focus on nature here? I am an avid hiker and love spending time in nature, but this study seems a little suspect to me.

It is not like it is the default state of all humans to live in cities. I think large cities like New York do more to make us miserly to strangers than nature does to make us generous. In New York there are just too many people trying to scam you to trust everyone. I think a city picture would, for me at least, conjure up suspicion and stinginess. I'd be more likely to point to the city picture as a source of behavioral change than the nature picture.

By the way, I have never left a comment before, but I really enjoy the blog, thanks. :)

By Colleen S (not verified) on 01 Oct 2009 #permalink

Interesting blog :-)
I have read about similar results from studies in Scandinavia - I just wonder if the research persons also consisted of (young) urban people who have rarely been exposed to "wild" nature. In my experience these young people often get either bored or stressed when going on an outdoor trip.
And what kind of nature are we talking about? Does an orderly garden or plantation make you more or less compassionate than a wild oldgrowth forest?

I've been spending a lot of time away from computers and corporate media for most of the summer. Including a lot of time on a sailboat not connected to anything other than the earth via the anchor. Indeed it is a very calming, rejuevinating and I find creative way to spend ones time. Even though the economic situation has severely cutailed my work hours I found time spent in a quiet anchorage watching the Osprey and other aspects of the natural enviornment around me to make me feel lucky to be alive and in these places to enjoy it. I actually felt sad for the millions commuting to work and the city dwellers who feel that the noise and din of city living is a life affirming sound.


Take someone out of the big city and drop them in a wilderness area on their own, with no guarantee that the situation is temporary, and see just how much stress is alleviated. No more need for social strategies becomes a desperate need for basic survival strategies.

This kind of reminds me of Henry David Thoreau's experience in Walden Pond...after spending months and months isolated in nature, Thoreau was able to see things more clearly, and he realized how important simplicity is in one's life. I think a lot of us can learn from your topic: first to find ways to find relaxants and stress relievers in the natural world around us, but also to appreciate nature more for what it truly is. Nice topic here, I think you've raised an interesting hypothesis!

My friend takes me ice fishing and clamming now and then in beautiful relatively wild surroundings. The people we see on the ice and flats are very approachable and almost invariably friendly. If they asked us for fish and clams or asked for help I thing we'd readily share and assist. On the other hand in groups we are more wary. We don't know the interests of the many people around us.

By Pike Messenger (not verified) on 04 Oct 2009 #permalink

The problem with interpreting this experiment is that they've changed several variables at once. There's the sense of personal space, large and open in natural surroundings. The absence of written language, and usually less spoken language. Absence of frequent need to read other people's state of mind from facial expression and posture. A much more varied visual scene in distance and size of objects, fractal detail. Ambient light.

It would be easy to control out for some of this. In particular, real time contact with people and language.

By Roger Bigod (not verified) on 04 Oct 2009 #permalink

Any chance we could get the citation for the article mentioned here?

Here is the abstract. (I think it's so lame to publish this sort of research in a journal that isn't open access.) The fact that people aren't so compassionate in the hustle and bustle of the urban city doesn't surprise me at all (you're surrounded by more strangers and you hear about more reports of crime). There was the famous "Lucifer Effect" experiment of Philip Zimbardo.

But why did this Berman fellow not use a peaceful suburban neighborhood as a kind of control. Maybe people are even more charitable in the burbs than on the mountain peaks. Anyway, it would be nice if you could point us to more details and raw data from the experiment. Otherwise essays like the one you wrote for the Globe will inevitably be distilled down into headlines like "cities manufacture morons."

And, for the record, I've met plenty of uncharitable people who live out "in nature."