Researchers found that people who viewed a videotape of a drive down a scenic parkway scored lower on a test of frustration than did others who viewed a drive through a metro area cluttered with buildings and utility poles.
While commuters may not get to choose their views as they drive to work, the results suggest that nature can have a calming effect on drivers, said Jack Nasar, co-author of the study and professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University.
"Researchers have long found that nature can be an antidote to stress," Nasar said. "We found that roadways with views of vegetation and trees rather than more urban scenes can make drivers feel a little less frustrated."
Nasar conducted the study with Jean Marie Cackowski, a former graduate student at Ohio State and now managing editor of the Journal of Planning Literature. The study appears in the November 2003 issue of the journal Environment and Behavior.
"It is clear from the study that our natural environment has a psychological affect on us, even when we're doing something mundane as driving a car," Cackowski said.
The study involved 106 college students who viewed one of three videotapes. Each tape was 4 minutes and 45 seconds long and showed a view through the front windshield of a car as it drove along a roadway. The three videos were taken within eight miles of each other on northern New Jersey or southern New York highways.
One video, labeled "Scenic Parkway" was of a four-lane roadway through a wooded area with few buildings or man-made structures visible from the roadway. The second video, labeled "Garden Highway" was of a six-lane, controlled access highway that, while not as wooded as the scenic parkway, still showed relatively few buildings or utility poles. The third video, labeled "Built-Up Highway," featured a drive down a six-lane highway through an area of strip malls, commercial signs and utility poles, and relatively little vegetation.
The researchers made sure that the video that they believed would be most calming - the scenic parkway drive - actually had the most traffic shown.
"Though this choice may have reduced the beneficial effects of the parkway, it means the results we found are probably stronger," Nasar said.
Before they were shown the video, the participants had to perform a difficult 10-minute test that was meant to raise their stress and anger levels.
They were then given a test measuring their anger levels. After the anger test, they watched the driving videos. The participants were asked to focus on the video, place their foot on a dummy accelerator pedal under the table, and imagine they were driving to work.
After the viewings, participants re-took the anger test. They also took a test to measure their tolerance for frustration, which involved a set of four word puzzles: anagrams (scrambled words) that they were told to unscramble to form a word. However, some of the anagrams were unsolvable.
The time people spend on the unsolvable anagrams serves as a measure of frustration, Cackowski said. High levels of frustration should lead people to quit the unsolvable anagrams more quickly.
Results showed that participants who watched the "scenic parkway" video - the one through the wooded area - showed lower levels of frustration than those who watched the videos of the more urban driving experiences.
"Respondents viewing the scenic parkway condition worked almost a minute and a half longer on the unsolvable anagrams than did the respondents who watched the other videos," Cackowski said. "This suggests that the scenic views of this video had a restorative, calming effect on those who watched it. If these people were that less frustrated, it may translate into a real behavior difference."
Which video the participants viewed had no effect on their levels of anger, the study showed. The reason may be that anger scores for the participants weren't really high enough in the first place, Nasar said. The stressful addition test that the volunteers took before watching the videos didn't succeed in causing much anger. "Perhaps we would have seen a greater effect if their anger levels were higher before they watched the videos, or if they had a more realistic driving task," he said.
Nasar noted that this study was not a very realistic driving situation. However, he and Cackowski are running a follow-up experiment in which participants will use simulation software that will provide a more realistic driving experience.
"The fact that we got results even with this simple study suggests their may be real effects," he said. "These results go along with other studies that show people prefer natural scenery over urban scenery and that natural scenery can produce positive psychological effects."
Contact: Jack Nasar, 614-292-1457; Nasar.firstname.lastname@example.org
Jean Marie Cackowski, 614-292-4011; Cackowski.email@example.com
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, 614-292-8457; Grabmeier.firstname.lastname@example.org