Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Social Biophilia Hypothesis (by guest blogger Dan Haybron)

Two posts back I suggested that people may have evolved with psychological needs for which they lack corresponding desires, or at least strong enough desires given the significance of the needs. For certain needs may have been met automatically in the environment in which we evolved, so that there wouldn’t be any point in having desires for them. Today I want to suggest a possible example of this: a need for close engagement with the natural environment.

Biologist E.O. Wilson and others have defended the “biophilia” hypothesis, according to which human beings evolved with an innate affinity for nature. They have noted a variety of results pointing to the measurable benefits of exposure to natural scenes, wilderness, etc. (E.g., hospital patients with a view of trees and the like tend to have better outcomes.) To be honest I have not read this literature extensively, but the root idea strikes me as very plausible.

Indeed, I suspect that human beings have a basic psychological need for engagement with natural environments, so that their well-being (in particular, their happiness) is substantially diminished insofar as they are removed from such environments. And yet we don’t perceive an overwhelming desire for it, because the need was automatically fulfilled for our ancestors.

I can’t offer much argument here, but one reason to believe all this is that dealing with wilderness places intense cognitive demands on us, presenting us with an extremely rich perceptual environment that requires a high degree of attentiveness and discernment. (I don’t mean enjoying a hike in the woods, perceived as a pleasant but indiscriminate blur of greens, browns, and grays—I mean *knowing* the woods intimately, because the success of your daily activities depends on it.) The selection pressures on our hunter-gatherer ancestors to excel in meeting these demands must have been intense, and I think this is one of the things we are indeed really good at. Moreover, it is plausible that we really enjoy exercising these capacities (recall Rawls’ “Aristotelian Principle”). Insofar as we fail to exercise these capacities, we may be deprived of one of the chief sources of human happiness (see, Michael Pollan’s excellent “The Modern Hunter-Gatherer.”) I suspect that most artificial environments (think suburbia) are too simple and predictable, leaving these capacities mostly idled, and us bored. (Perhaps many people love cities precisely because they come closer to simulating the richness of nature.)

At the same time, we are obviously social creatures, most of whom have a deep need to live in community with others. Living alone in the forest is not a good plan for most of us. Distinguish two types of community: “land communities,” where daily live typically involves a close engagement with the natural environment; and “pavement communities,” where it does not. Virtually all of us now live in pavement communities.

Here’s a wild conjecture: human flourishing is best served in the context of a land community. Indeed, only in such a community can our basic psychological needs be met. Call this the “social biophilia hypothesis.” Plausible?

I suppose this will seem crazy to most readers, and maybe it is. For one thing, there is a conspicuous paucity of discussion of such ideas in the psychological literature. Why isn’t there more evidence for this hypothesis in the literature? I would suggest there are two reasons. First, current measures of happiness may be inadequate, e.g. focusing too little on stress and other states where we would expect to find the biggest differential. Second, psychologists basically don’t *study* people in land communities. Almost all the big studies of subjective well-being, the heritability studies, etc., focus on populations living in pavement communities. And there is virtually no work comparing the well-being of people closely engaged with nature and those who are not (but see Biswas-Diener et al. 2005). If the social biophilia hypothesis is true, then this would be a bit like studying human well-being using only hermits as subjects. (“Zounds, they’re all the same! Happiness must be mainly in the genes.”) The question is, how can we study the effects on well-being of living close to nature while controlling for other differences between people who do so and people living in pavement communities?


Justin Tiwald said...

Fascinating post, Dan. Perhaps you could make a study of park workers who live in urban areas, especially those who are responsible for maintaining very large parks with variegated flora and fauna, like Golden Gate Park or Central Park. I live across the street from the former, and I always envy the park workers their apparent sense of contentment.

Of course, the success of a hunter-gatherer's daily activities depends more heavily on knowing her natural environment than a park worker's would, so this might fall short of the kind of study you have in mind.

Evelyn Brister said...

A popular book for educators and parents is Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods, in which he argues that children (and also adults) are less happy than they could be because they don't spend enough unstructured time in nature.

Empirical support for the claim seems lacking, though. He marshalls some support for the benefits of nature experiences (like the view for hospital patients) and some support for the contribution of unstructured leisure time/play to well-being, especially in children (school days with recess are linked to higher test scores, open-ended play is more creative and more egalitarian). He doesn't point to much in the literature that links the two (open-ended activities in nature). One study he does cite found that outdoor, unstructured play (but not organized sports) lessens the symptoms of ADHD.

Justin said...

I'm wondering why you say we lack desires for interaction with nature, as opposed to just saying that we lack conscious awareness of those desires or their importance? It seems like people find close interaction with nature positively rewarding, and that many people seek it out. Perhaps people just undervalue its importance on their happiness relative to other goods.

Anibal said...

I´m not sure but maybe a plausible way to tackle the last witty question you have posed is focusing and measuring something that both members of the different "lifestyle" (e.g. land communities and pavement communities)are sharing: food.

Manufactured food for pavement commnunities and raw and unprepared food for land communities.

It is known by the sicentific communitie that food changes our humour states. When someone is depressed ussually eat sweets not because it contains sugar but becuase blood cells realease sugar in the brain that in turns release serotonin that reduce the depressed state.

So, perhaps, the distinct forms of cultural selection manifested in the way land and pavement communties cook food, is a clue to their differences in happiness.

dan haybron said...

Thanks for the great comments, Justin, Evelyn and Justin!

Justin T:
I think park workers could be a great idea, since they are both culturally mainstream (sort of) and spend lots of time out in the wild (sort of), so they might avoid certain confounds you'd get studying other cultures. I agree with the problem you raise, but expect the only way to deal with it is to approach the issue from a variety of angles, looking at many different populations, and see if there's a consistent pattern of greater WB for those living close to the land that isn't readily explained by other factors.

Thanks v much for the reference--funny, I recently stumbled across it on amazon and put it on my wishlist. Sounds very interesting, though from what you say it appears to have the deficiencies I feared. My hope at this stage, if this idea seems worth pursuing, is to marshall enough of a case to motivate further research.

You raise an interesting question about whether people might have the desires without knowing it, which is possible. But if they do, it isn't just that they aren't aware, it's also (it seems to me) that those desires aren't very effective in motivating people.

At the same time, it is clear as you point out that very many people seek out contact with nature (think of the tourism industry), which may mean that there are innate desires of this sort--to which I would add, those desires (as you suggest) may not be strong *enough* relative to the importance of nature for happiness.

This would be good to study: do people seek out nature because they've learned to, through enculturation or b/c they've enjoyed past experiences with it, or is this desire innate? Eg, do people who've never left the city have a strong desire to visit wilderness? I suspect many do not, but don't know. An interesting group to study here would be those inner-city kids who are taken camping in the woods for their first taste of nature (I forget the name of this program)--what happens to their cortisol levels etc? (Of course just taking them out of the inner city at all might make them happier...)

Thanks again, guys!

dan haybron said...


That's a really interesting idea! I would not be at all surprised if contemporary industrial diets had a significant impact on happiness in the ways you mentioned. So if people in one type of community (land vs. pavement) are happier than in the other, it may be (partly) because of systematic differences in diet. (Actually, reading Michael Pollan's work, which I mentioned in my post, makes this seem increasingly plausible--see esp his recent piece on "nutritionism".)

One way to test for this might be if you can find land communities at a similar level of development, except that one eats lots of processed food and the other doesn't--is this possible?


Cameron said...

It'd be messy, I'm sure, but I think it might be possible to find populations in similar development stages who eat different foods. (Whether you can untangle the effects from the reasons why they eat those foods is another thing.) Foreign assistance can change people's foodways pretty radically.

If I were going to study that, I'd look into Pacific island peoples. Their diets can vary a lot from island to island, depending on how much imported stuff winds up at each island.

When I traveled around the Pacific a dozen-odd years ago, I passed through Majuro and Tarawa. People in Majuro ate a great deal of white rice and canned food from the US; people in more rural Tarawa ate a lot of white rice from Japan, plus fish, shellfish, coconut, and lots of fresh fruit. It was my unscientific impression that people in Majuro tended to strike me as unhappy and strained, and people in Tarawa tended to strike me as happy, complex, creative, and resilient.

dan haybron said...

Thanks for the great comment, Cameron. I'll have to see if I can find anything published on those places (or maybe get a grant to go! Wonder how they've changed since then). Interestingly, there was some research done in samoa comparing westernized, partly developed, and traditional areas, which found that salivary cortisol levels (and maybe other stress indicators) were highest in the transition areas, next highest in the westernized towns, and lowest in the traditional areas. I wonder if they recorded dietary habits... (i can find references if anyone's interested).

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