Now envision a similar scenario, but instead of that beautiful oak tree with branches extended overhead, there now only remains a scarred, broken oak tree, torn asunder by a past lightning strike. The lake is a greenish-brown, and the afternoon sun blinds your eyes. The wind blows stiff and strong off of the lake, chilling you to the core. The same stranger approaches, with the same appeal. Would finding yourself in one of these two nature settings influence your chances of donating money to the stranger?
Recent research by Jia Wei Zhand and colleagues (link) suggests that the difference between experiencing a particularly beautiful nature scene, as compared to a less idyllic nature scene, does actually translate into differences in one’s willingness to help other people.
Why did simple differences between types of pictures or types of plants influence individuals’ tendencies to help others? The beautiful nature scenes made people feel stronger positive emotions (e.g., happiness, joy, delight). A theory called ”broaden-and-build theory” (Fredrickson, 2001) proposes that when humans experience positive emotions, they broaden their perspective and focus more on long-term goals, including goals relevant to building a positive and healthy community. This orientation can lead to increases in a person’s willingness to help others.
In addition, the researchers also considered how people differ in their ability to be whisked away by beautiful experiences, including beautiful scenes of nature. What they actually found was that only these individuals, those who are particularly influenced by beauty, became more willing to trust and help others after experiencing beautiful nature scenes.
This research provides some evidence that the beauty of your surroundings can influence your willingness to help others. However, the social sciences are complex, and additional questions always remain. What specific features of a beautiful nature setting (e.g., tall trees, a cloudless sky, distant mountains) increase a person’s positive emotions and helping behavior? Would spending actual time outdoors in these disparate settings more drastically influence trust and rates of helping behavior? Finally, would experiencing a terrifying nature scene, such as a raging storm or a forest fire, decrease a person’s positive emotions, thus decreasing helping behaviors?
What do you think? Let me know below.