The impact of subjectively more beautiful nature on prosocial tendencies

Zhang, J. W., Piff, P. K., Iyer, R. ., Koleva, S. ., & Keltner, D. . (2014). An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 37, 61-72.

Throughout history, philosophers, scientists, and many others have noted the positive impacts of nature on human experience. Extensive research in EE has been devoted to proving the benefits of exposure to nature, including increases in prosocial behaviors, such as trust, generosity, and empathy. Various theories exist about whether beauty is objective (based on properties of an object) or subjective (based on human perception and interpretation). Past research attributed the connection between nature and prosocial behavior to two main pathways: 1) nature is linked to decreasing the concept of “self,” which leads to focusing more on others and increasing helping behaviors, and 2) perceiving beauty is linked to experiencing positive emotions, and positive emotions drive prosocial actions. This research investigated the link between experiencing nature, the subjective beauty of nature, and prosocial behaviors. The authors used four studies to explore whether subjectively more beautiful nature resulted in higher levels of prosocial behavior.

This article reported on four different studies. Study 1 tested whether individuals with higher capacity to perceive natural beauty had more prosocial tendencies (namely agreeableness, perspective taking, and empathy). Studies 2 and 3 were designed to investigate whether a more or less beautiful natural stimulus resulted more or less prosocial behaviors, respectively. Study 4 explored whether subjectively more beautiful plants resulted in increased helping behavior. The methods for each study are described in additional detail below.

The capacity to perceive natural beauty was measured in all studies using an existing subscale called PNB within the Engagement with Beauty Scale. In this work, the PNB scale was used to measure how differences in individuals' capacity to perceive natural beauty changed nature's effects on prosocial behaviors. The scale uses statements such as “when perceiving beauty in nature I feel something like a spiritual experience,” and asks respondents to self-report on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).

Participants in Study 1 were volunteers residing in the US and registered on; a total of 846 participated, with an average age of just below 40, 42% female, and 75% Caucasian. The participants completed the PNB questionnaire, and then completed questions that measured their prosocial tendencies. Agreeableness was assessed through the agreeableness factor in the Big Five Inventory, and included 9 questions on a response scale from 1 disagree strongly to 5 agree strongly. Perspective taking was measured on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), which included 7 questions on a response scale from 0 does not describe me well to 4 describes me very well. Empathy was measured by 6 questions on the IRI response scale from 0 does not describe me well to 4 describes me very well. The Connectedness to Nature Scale (CNS) with 14 questions was also used to measure participant's connection to nature.

Study 2 included 128 participants (53% female with an average age of 34). Participants in both pilot and actual studies were recruited using a financial incentive through Amazon's Mechanical Turk (MTurk) program, which is an online crowdsourcing website. Researchers collected images of nature from Google and created a cluster of 60 more beautiful images and 40 less beautiful images. Participants were randomly assigned to watch a 1-minute presentation of either the more or less beautiful nature images (10 images were randomly selected from either cluster and shown for 6 seconds). After viewing the slideshow, participants were asked to rate the beauty of the images from 1 not at all to 7 very much. In addition, participants were also asked to rate the objective aspects of the photographs, including clarity, proportion, symmetry, and complexity. The participants then completed an activity to measure the prosocial behavior of generosity, called the Dictator Task. The participants were paired with an anonymous partner and were allowed to give them any number of 10 points (1 points = 5 cents) while their partner had no input into the game. The “Dictator” would keep any points they did not give to their partner. Participants also completed the PNB and CNS surveys.

Study 3 had a similar methodology but included different participants, a different set of 10 random images chosen from the more/less beautiful clusters of nature images, and a different test of prosocial behavior. A total of 112 participants (27% female with an average age of 31) were recruited from MTurk. After viewing the slideshow and rating the beauty and objective characteristics of the images, participants completed an activity called the Trust Game. Participants were told they were paired with an anonymous partner and given 30 points each (1 point = 1 cent). Any amount of points given to their partner would triple, and their partner could give points back as well. Participants also completed the PNB and CNS surveys.

In Study 4, the researchers purchased subjectively more and less beautiful plants from a nursery to use in an in-person experiment. A total of 45 students from a West Coast university in the U.S. received course credit for participating (64% female with an average age of 21). Before arriving at the university lab, students completed the PNB survey online. Students were randomly selected for high or low plant beauty conditioning and seated in proximity to the clusters of more or less beautiful plants. Students were asked to fill out a questionnaire about positive emotions while sitting near the plants. When finished, the researcher came back and said the study was complete. Participants were then asked to complete an activity related to a helping behavior; specifically, they were asked to help researchers fold cranes for victims of the Japan Earthquake.

Overall, these four studies showed that subjective perception of natural beauty significantly impacted prosocial behavior. The data showed that exposure to subjectively more beautiful nature is linked to increased prosocial behaviors through positive emotions. Participants with a heightened perception of natural beauty (PNB) were even more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors in comparision to low-PNB counterparts.

In Study 1, PNB scores were linked with agreeableness, perspective taking, and empathy, meaning that participants with a strong capacity to perceive natural beauty had more pronounced prosocial tendencies. Along with PNB, age, religious attendance, and connectedness to nature were also linked to differences in agreeableness and empathy. However, age, gender, and religious attendance did not significantly influence participants' perspective taking, while PNB and CNS scores did influence perspective taking. Perspective taking is an important practice for increasing compassion towards nature and other humans, so it is especially interesting that high PNB and CNS were linked to higher perspective taking while other factors were not.

In Study 2, those who viewed the more beautiful images gave away more points in the Dictator Task, demonstrating higher levels of generosity. The results showed that more beautiful pictures induced positive emotions, and positive emotions led to generosity. The effect of increased generosity from viewing more beautiful nature and experiencing positive emotions was more pronounced in individuals with higher PNB.

In Study 3, participants who viewed the slideshow with more beautiful nature gave away more points in the Trust Game and experienced higher levels of positive emotions. Positive emotions and PNB were predictive of points given away. The effect of increased trust from viewing more beautiful nature was more pronounced in individuals with higher PNB.

In Study 4, participants with more beautiful plant conditioning were more willing to fold cranes than the less beautiful plant conditioning group. This finding demonstrated a significant relationship between experiencing subjectively more beautiful nature and increased helping behavior. The group exposed to more beautiful plants folded significantly more cranes compared to the group exposed to less beautiful plants. Again, a greater ability to perceive natural beauty made the trend stronger—those with high PNB were more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors.

This research has limitations. Although the data showed that there was no difference in objective characteristics (symmetry, clarity, etc.) of photographs used in Study 2 and 3, there were differences in landscape characteristics (e.g., more water, open space, and mixture of natural colors in the more beautiful images). The authors acknowledged that the link between landscape characteristics of nature and the subjective perception of natural beauty needs further exploration. In Study 4, the authors did not investigate whether the participants actually looked at the plants or acknowledged their beauty during the experiment.

This research has implications for neighborhoods, classrooms, hospitals, charity organizations, and other areas where positive emotions and prosocial behaviors are especially crucial. This work can as help practitioners understand how and why individuals have different responses to nature exposure, by demonstrating that those with higher PNB have higher prosocial behavior outcomes from exposure to beautiful nature. The authors recommend exposing students and others to subjectively more beautiful nature to maximize positive emotions and prosocial tendencies.

The Bottom Line

<p>This research explored the connection between experiencing nature, subjective natural beauty, and prosocial behaviors. Through 4 different studies, the authors' investigated the relationship between the capacity to perceive natural beauty (PNB) and prosocial behaviors, and the impacts of exposure to more and less subjectively beautiful nature on generosity and trust. The studies found that when exposed to subjectively more beautiful nature, individuals had increased prosocial tendencies and behaviors (such as empathy, trust, and helping behaviors). Individuals with a higher capacity to perceive natural beauty (PNB) had more pronounced increases in their prosocial behaviors in comparison to low-PNB counterparts. Positive emotions may link viewing more beautiful nature with prosocial tendencies. Practitioners that work in places where positive emotions and prosocial behavior are especially important should try to incorporate exposure to subjectively more beautiful nature.</p>

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