Does Exposure to Nature Aid Long-Term Thinking?

Long-term planning has got to be one of the biggest challenges to the way we conceive of, design, and live in the world – that is also completely essential to our survival. Why is long-term thinking such a hard sell? And is there anything we can do to be better at it? According to a paper titled “Do natural landscapes reduce future discounting in humans?” by a group of researchers in Amsterdam, exposure to urban environments may compromise our ability for long-term thinking (what they call future discounting). But exposure to nature may be able to help enhance it.

The study was based on theories about competition and resources. Lush environments, the researchers argue, are “intrinsically rewarding and enjoyable as they provide cues of predictability and resource abundance, at least for ancestral humans, whose psychology is likely to be still affecting modern humans.” Urban environments, on the other hand, “convey the perception of intense social competition among humans for all kinds of resources… As a consequence, we hypothesize that exposure to natural scenes will make people discount the future less, whereas exposure to urban scenes will be like to have the opposite effect.”

The researchers conducted three tests. In the first, people were shown photographs on a computer of either a natural landscape or an urban environment for two minutes and instructed to ‘immerse themselves in the environment shown in the photograph. In the second experiment, people were “primed” by looking at three photographs of a natural landscape or an urban environment Participants were primed by three nature or urban landscape photographs (in the control condition, no prime was administered) and then completed another activity to test temporal discounting game. The third test took participants out in to the field, assigning them to take a five minute walk around either a heavily developed neighborhood or a nearby woodland. After each experiment, participants were asked to complete an activity to measure their temporal discounting. They were then either paid immediately for their time or offered a larger payment to be disbursed over three months.

People who had spent time in the woodland were likelier to choose the delayed (higher) reward, even when it was only €10 more than receiving the reward immediately, suggesting that they are likelier to consider the future when making decisions today. According to the paper, “All three studies… showed that exposure to natural landscapes decreases temporal discounting and makes people care more for the future, with discount rates being 10–16% lower after nature exposure than after exposure to urban landscapes.” In other words, natural environments “cue” people to consider the future – to employ their capacity for long-term thinking – more than urban environments.

Our main finding suggests that exposing people to natural landscapes extends their time horizons, whereas exposure to urban landscapes narrows people’s time perspectives. With the majority of people in the world now living in towns and cities, it may be important to find ways to unleash people’s innate biophilia.

Urbanization of areas all over the globe is happening quickly and ferociously. If the findings presented in this paper are correct, then our capacity for long-term thinking is most compromised in the areas where it is also the most critical. Building smarter, more efficient, more livable and sustainable cities is a fundamental challenge that anyone involved in urban planning should be aiming to solve. Incorporating true elements of nature will be critical to this effort.

Flickr credit: kevmann16


One comment

  1. Not to mention, lowering overall stress levels as well. This notion of longer-term thinking in nature makes a lot of sense to me – in our urban environments we’re programmed into thinking faster is better, to get immediate results, and because of that we live a hectic lifestyle that clutters our thoughts.

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