Consume less and better , travel by public transport , produce less waste and sort it correctly… Promoting the emergence of pro-environmental behavior among individuals constitutes a major and urgent challenge in the face of climate change. The motivations for acting in the interest of the planet are very diverse and can be specific to individuals or stimulated by external or social factors . Public authorities can in fact use multiple levers to encourage sustainable behavior.
Overall, the individual is sensitive to the context in which he makes his decisions . We also know that our emotional state is not neutral in the fight against global warming and that nature directly and positively influences both our physical and psychological state.
Individuals most often live in an urbanized environment and spend a large part of their time far from nature , due to their professional and personal activities. This contributes to a physical and psychological disconnection with nature while fostering this connection could promote the realization of pro-environmental behaviors .
We wondered if fostering connection to nature could stimulate the feeling of belonging to the biosphere , and encourage individuals to be more inclined to protect the environment. If so, this would be an effective and inexpensive strategy. We therefore studied the potential impact of virtual exposure to nature (via viewing a video) on pro-environmental behaviors.
The laboratory experiment
We test this causal link in a laboratory experiment where 113 subjects watch a 12-minute video . Depending on the experimental treatment in which they find themselves, subjects watch either a video presenting an urban environment (excerpt from a documentary on the architecture of New York City), or a video presenting a natural environment (excerpt from the documentary Wild Yellowstone produced by the National Geographic channel).
To assess the impact, we study two real decisions made following viewing: a monetary decision, corresponding to a donation to an environmental protection NGO, then a non-monetary decision, in this case an eco-gesture recycling of hygienic caps for headphones.
We included in the experimental protocol a questionnaire to assess the participants' ecological awareness ( New Ecological Paradigm scale). This tool measures attitudes towards nature, its protection, the threats weighing on it, and human behavior to be prohibited or encouraged for its preservation. It makes it possible to classify individuals according to the level of their ecological awareness. Each individual obtains an average score between 1 (no ecological awareness) and 5 (very strong ecological awareness). Based on the Johnson-Neyman procedure, we split the sample into two groups: individuals with relatively low ecological awareness (less than 4), and those with relatively high ecological awareness (greater than or equal to 4). .
A strong impact on people with low ecological awareness
The analysis of the responses collected during this experiment demonstrates that virtual exposure to nature increases both monetary donation (+0.83 euros on average over a range of possible donations between 0 and 10 euros) and eco-gesture (+15%) compared to subjects virtually exposed to an urban environment. In other words, exposure to nature acts both on the willingness to make a financial effort, as well as on the willingness to make a physical effort in favor of the environment.
The particularly interesting result of this experiment is that the increase in pro-environmental behavior mainly comes from individuals who previously declare having a relatively low ecological awareness. Within this group, after watching a video about nature, donations increase by €1.47 on average, and more than half of the individuals make the eco-gesture.
Another point to note is that we did not find any knock-on effects between the monetary donation and the eco-gesture. In other words, giving does not increase or decrease the likelihood of making an eco-friendly gesture.
Unraveling the reasons for this impact
To ensure the relevance of our results and fully understand the mechanisms at work, we integrated two robustness checks into our experimental protocol.
We verified that the impact came from the theme of the video presenting a natural environment and not from its emotional component. To do this, we carried out a control experiment with a new group. Instead of the video presenting a natural environment, the participants watched a succession of scenes taken from films without any reference to nature , but generating the same type of positive emotions ( Bruce Almighty, Sister Act, What Want women, Wall-E ). It appears that for the same type of emotions felt, the donation is significantly stronger when the subjects watch a video that refers to nature (+1.13 euros on average).
We also examined whether the “natural” theme of the video had an influence on the choice of the recipient of the donation. To do this, we carried out another control experiment with a new group, by offering them to make a donation to a humanitarian NGO not operating in the field of environmental protection. We found that, whatever the field of action of the NGO, the amount of the donation is not significantly different.
Virtual nature in the city?
Overall, the results of this experiment seem to demonstrate that there is a positive impact of virtual exposure to nature on pro-environmental behavior. The political implications are numerous. Public decision-makers could use fun and easily accessible solutions, similar to green nudges/nudges , where the individual would be repeatedly or even permanently exposed to nature. Sorting columns, buses and trams could, for example, be decorated with images reminiscent of nature. These solutions are generally inexpensive, non-restrictive, and easy to implement.
This type of solution complements urban renaturalization by reducing the distance to urban green spaces, installing shared gardens, planting more trees to combat heat islands, or creating green walls. Combining virtual solutions and operational solutions can create positive synergies to reconnect individuals with nature, and thus promote pro-environmental behaviors.
Lisette Ibanez , Research Director in Behavioral and Environmental Economics, CEE-M, Inrae and Sébastien Roussel , University Professor of Economics, CEE-M & EPSYLON, Paul Valéry University – Montpellier III