People who feel more connected to nature also tend to hold more egalitarian views, according to new research published in the journal Environment and Behavior. The study provides some preliminary evidence that exposure to nature can reduce social dominance orientation, a measure of person’s acceptance of hierarchy and inequality among groups.

“Urban greening is often taken as a measure to fight climate change. We can see tons of reports quantifying the cost of climate change, and economic benefits of planting trees,” said study author Henry Kin Shing Ng of the University of Hong Kong. “To me, the psychological benefits of exposure to nature are just as important. The natural environment can be an effective, and relatively cheap, measure to enhance social and psychological well-being in people.”

The researchers were interested in how a person’s relationship with the natural environment was associated with their social dominance orientation, a personality characteristic that is closely associated with authoritarianism.

“While dispositional connectedness to nature is evidently related to environmentalism, less is known about its relationship with people’s intergroup behavior and attitudes. If a person can empathize with nature, such as an endangered species, it should not be surprising that they also show kindness to fellow human beings, such as marginalized groups in society,” the authors of the study explained.

“When you feel connected with nature, you’ll also feel connected with others and be nicer to them,” Ng told PsyPost.

The participants were also randomly assigned to view one of five environmental scenes, which varied in their level of resources and security. They were asked to write at least two sentences describing how they would act and feel if they were stuck alone in the environment for three days.

The researchers found that those who viewed a scene of nature, as opposed to an urban landscape, tended to have reduced social dominance orientation, suggesting that nature exposure decreases social dominance orientation. However, this was only true among those who were already highly connected to nature.

“Seeing nature sceneries can boost such connections. It’s good to be outside, particularly during the pandemic when people stay at home a lot,” Ng said.

The findings are in line with previous research, which has found that people with a greater social dominance orientation tend to engage less in pro-environmental behavior. But the new study also includes some caveats.

“Not all natural environments cast the same social beneficial effect to all people,” Ng said. “What needs to be addressed in the future is to pinpoint the specific features in nature that can trigger such an effect. It is challenging because when it comes to nature, there are just too many features to study. Machine learning on big data may help identifying such features in the future.”

The study, “Nature Connectedness and Nature Exposure Interactively Influence Social Dominance Orientation and Policy Support for Marginalized Groups during the COVID-19 Pandemic“, was authored by Henry Kin Shing Ng and Angel Nga Man Leung.

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