Nature, Cities, and Long-term Thinking

Posted on Tuesday, January 21st, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
link Categories: Long Term Thinking   chat 0 Comments

concreteleafphoto by Tanya Hart

In 01995, Brian Eno surmised that the fast-paced uncertainty of life in New York City led people to retreat into the immediacy of their own private worlds. As a counterweight to this preoccupation with the “short now,” he posited the idea of “The Long Now” – and thus the name of our Foundation was born.

Now, nearly twenty years later, a group of researchers from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam argues that urban environments may indeed directly impede our capacity for long-term thinking.

Their work is predicated on evolutionary theories of competition. In an environment with scarce resources for nutrition and reproduction, their paper explains, life is uncertain and survival depends on an organism’s success in securing as many of those resources as he can, as fast as he can. When surrounded by abundance, on the other hand, the need to compete is less acute. Organisms can afford to take it easy: there will still be apples in that tree tomorrow, and there’s no risk that that nearby stream will run dry any time soon. In other words: a lush environment creates the probability of a future. It allows species the opportunity to maximize their evolutionary success by weighing short-term gains against long-term rewards.

This team of Dutch social psychologists hypothesized that urban environments will trigger a perception of scarcity and uncertainty in the human brain, whereas natural surroundings will elicit a sense of abundance and stability:

Urban landscapes are inherently unpredictable as they convey intense social competition for status, goods and mates, and so they may entice people – either consciously or subconsciously – to adopt a faster life history. By contrast, nature exposure may encourage individuals to adopt a slower life-history strategy, perhaps because natural environments convey an abundance of natural resources, and hence less competition.

Indeed, their series of three experiments has confirmed that people who have been exposed to a natural environment are more inclined to consider the future than those who have been immersed in an urban setting. In the first two of these tests, research participants were shown a selection of photographs that depicted either an urban or natural landscape; in the third, subjects were actually taken to a high-rise neighborhood or local forest. Following this ‘exposure’, all participants were asked to choose between an immediate reward of €100, or a larger reward – anywhere between €110 and €170 – to be paid out in ninety days. Those who had been exposed to natural settings were systematically more likely to choose the delayed reward – and to do so when the reward was set at a lower amount, suggesting a greater propensity to consider the future – than those who had been exposed to urban environments.

As the authors conclude, these findings have profound implications for global society – especially given today’s rate of urbanization. But there is cause for optimism: these studies also suggest that fostering long-term thinking may simply start by encouraging people to take a walk in the woods.

  • Daniel Dreisbach

    I believe every thing stated in the above paragraphs to be true. But sadly, since we ad around 200,000 humans to the planet every day, I also believe there is no long term help for the future un-less this one fact changes. The first step would be to change the mind set of religious leaders of all faiths.
    I really love the Long Now concept.

  • somnium

    while there is definitely something to be said for making a connection with nature and thus with our own humanity, studies like this one have a big flaw: they assume cause and direct effect on the subject, without considering the possibility of a second (and, in my opinion, more likely) scenario: the belief of the subject in actually obtaining the reward (rather than being given an empty promise) plays a huge role.

    the authors, or guides, who took the test subjects to the “natural landscape” would have been more relaxed themselves, conveying trustworthiness and dependability to the test subjects. this could be either or both because they enjoyed the natural environment, and because, on a less conscious level, they wanted these results. in either case, when asked whether they would want the reward now or later, participants inevitably consider the likelihood of actually receiving this reward. if they trust the guides, they would agree to a delayed but greater sum. however, if they feel these people don’t seem trustworthy, they would of course choose the smaller—but immediate—reward.

  • Joe Strahl

    While I understand and appreciate “somnium” ‘s points, I think that the article posted here on Long Now is insufficiently clear. It can be read that some people were shown pictures and then given the monetary reward choice, while others were either taken to a high-rise or to a forest and given a monetary reward choice. If so, then those showing the pictures would be less likely to be more relaxed or more tense and thus, according to Somnium influenced the results. If on the other hand the test subjects first looked at pictures and then travelled to a certain location….

    Another point: why all this obsession about monetary rewards? Why not perform a similar study and then present the test subjects with three or four ethical dilemmas such as helping an elderly person across a street with busy traffic versus missing your train home and the next train does not leave for another hour. Perhaps long term thinking in some cases would prevail which one might hope would be helping the person in need versus the short term personal comfort of getting home in a timely manner.

  • somnium

    Hi Joe,

    The article does in fact clarify some of this, and perhaps there are just a few misinterpretations happening here.
    I guess my main point which got lost in my rant (above) is that I’m bothered by the conclusion of “exposure to nature = long-term thinking” in the post above. Maybe the test subjects trust the ‘mystery” researchers more based on the images they have chosen to show them. Maybe exposure to nature simply brings humans closer to their roots, and to the understanding that money is a game we play. Maybe if the reward were nuts and fruit, the results would have been reversed. Etc., etc.

  • Bill W

    An interesting hypothesis. I shall treat it like the philosophical statement that it is, rather than a statement of fact supported by thorough research.

    From personal experience of long distance hiking alone, I agree that ones perspective changes radically in a more natural environment. However, I am wary of evolutionary arguments. Evolution is a complex thing and dangerous to use in behavioral arguments, particularly when the dominant feature of competition is selected from its myriad subtleties. For instance the long ridiculed idea of group selection has, since the mid-90s, made a genuine comeback among evolutionary biologists, including cases where group selection decreased competition among members of the group.

    I work with evolutionary algorithms and so I think a lot about the mechanisms of evolution, both in real and artificial worlds. Evolutionary algorithms borrow the ideas of natural selection and population dynamics to search for solutions to specific problems such as complex design, classification problems, and curve-fitting for non-differentiable functions. A related, but different set of algorithms, called hill-climbing algorithms also look for solutions, but they work in a more limited environment.

    Basically evolutionary algorithms create a population of solutions and then put them into competition with one another to find a “good enough” solution. Sometimes the “best” is found but often, in hard problems, it’s not the best. However, because you have a population, there are often many as-good or nearly as-good solutions as the hypothetical best. This is because evolution also creates pressure to diversify and in both real and imaginary environments, plasticity exists.

    Hill climbing algorithms on the other hand generally have no notion of anything but their local environment. They “look around” from their starting point and find where the nearest “fitness hill” is and proceed to climb incrementally climb it. This is done by taking a step in the steepest uphill direction and then looking again. Eventually they reach the top of the nearest hill. However, if there was a dip and then a bigger hill, they probably won’t cross the dip to get to the bigger hill.

    I believe (and this is a philosophical statement), that urban life tends to promote a “hill-climbing approach” to life: climb what’s in front of you. Spending time in the natural world tends to promote a broader perspective, and an understanding that there are “mountains beyond mountains.”

    However, this should not necessarily be confused with a pastoral life: both herding and agriculture are grindingly difficult and often come with endless chores that make it hard to even look up at the mountains, let alone wonder what is beyond them. But even so, once beyond subsistence, such a life does provide a sense of time and vistas beyond this horizon.

  • Joe Strahl

    Well it clearly is a problem when studies of human behaviour always try to monetize the rewards as you say. Maybe the problem is that Longnow has attempted to appropriate the research to says that this is an example of something that will support long term thinking. Yes, discounting over time is an example of longer term thinking.

    However if Somnium “distrust” the research in terms of the images used or Bill W “poo-poo” the study as not being “thorough” research (which suggests that Bill W did not bother to read the original research) then perhaps it is time for people here to organize a study to attempt to confirm or disprove the study done in the Netherlands at VU University.