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Nature and decision making


The Stanford marshmallow experiment is arguably the most famous exploration of gratification.  It asks children to sit in a room with a plate of marshmallows.  They’re told that they can have a marshmallow now, but if they wait for 15 minutes or so, they can have a larger reward (two marshmallows for instance).

The gravity of the research was that it was believed that those who could delay gratification were much more likely to do well in life, be that academically, professionally or personally.

Of course, human beings have generally evolved to favour instant gratification rather than the delayed sort.  When food is sparse and uncertain, you get what you can, when you can. Scientists call this ‘discounting’ the future; we often make short-short sighted decisions or are reluctant to make choices which delay rewards, even if the reward would be bigger if it were postponed.

So how does nature come into this?  Well, Dutch researchers wanted to explore the role natural environments play in our ability to make decisions which more accurately value the future (we usually discount future benefits).

They set up a series of experiments whereby participants were exposed to photos of natural environments in Amsterdam, whilst another team were given photographs of urban environments whilst walking around a built up part of the city.  After immersing themselves in their respective environments, the teams played the marshmallow game.

The researchers discovered that the team that was exposed to nature was more likely to choose delayed gratification.  Indeed, they were around 15% less likely to select instant gratification than their urban peers.

The scientists think that we might be more inclined to make longer-sighted decisions when exposed to nature because we perceive there to be more abundant resources and less competition than is apparent in urban locations. The scientists suggest that this means people in natural environments ‘live slower’, placing more value on the future, whilst those in cities ‘live faster’ and might prefer immediate gratification.

Short-term thinking is generally speaking not a positive thing in the workplace, and especially not when we’re attempting to develop collaborative behaviours that encourage people to think of others as well as themselves.

It might therefore benefit employers to start building physical environments that are slightly more natural than is currently the case.  As the researchers conclude, to encourage more long-term decisions from a global urban population it might be important to ‘find ways to unleash people’s innate affiliation to other living organisms’.

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