Nature or nurture: Which decides whether you like nature? - study

Swedish researchers determine that both heredity and environment decide whether people love nature.

 A lush green forest. (photo credit: FREERANGE STOCK)
A lush green forest.
(photo credit: FREERANGE STOCK)

Some people love puttering around in their garden or growing trees and plants on their balconies and love to go to nature spots while others see gardening and visiting forests and parks as a bother and couldn’t care less. 

It is well known that nature has a positive effect on people – and especially in urban areas, studies have shown that trees and other greenery contribute to people’s wellbeing. However, experts do not agree on the reasons behind this phenomenon, known as biophilia.

"...positive emotions while walking in a forest rose in 65% of people."

Professor (emeritus) Bengt Gunnarsson of Gothenburg

Are attitudes toward nature learned while growing up or is it something that is inherited? The answer is both, according to researchers at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). Our love of nature is highly individual and should influence how we plan our cities, said the researchers.

Some believe that it is natural for humans to feel an automatic positive attachment because human development has occurred in nature. Others argue that there is no evidence for this and that influences during our childhood determine how we view nature. 

They published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution under the title “Biophilia Revisited: Nature vs. Nurture.”

HANITA FOREST (credit: Courtesy)
HANITA FOREST (credit: Courtesy)

The researchers, headed by environmental sciences Prof. (emeritus) Bengt Gunnarsson of Gothenburg, concluded that both heredity and environment influence an individual’s attitude to nature, but that a wide range of factors also influence how love of nature is expressed. “We have been able to establish that many people have an unconscious positive experience of nature, but the biophilia hypothesis should be modified to link the variation in individuals’ relationships with nature to an interaction between heredity and environmental influence.”

This, he said, is because people react differently to nature. In a Japanese study, subjects were asked to walk in a forest and in a city while their heartbeat was measured. This showed that positive emotions while walking in a forest rose in 65% of people. Another environmental psychology study found that research subjects are unconsciously drawn to nature instead of cities and that this attraction was reinforced in those whose childhood was rich in nature.

“An additional study on identical and non-identical twins showed that a genetic component influences an individual’s positive or negative relationship with nature,” continued Bengt. “But the study also highlighted the importance of environment in terms of attitudes towards nature.”

Should our public parks be manicured or wild?

Nature can also mean completely different things to different people. Some enjoy parks with lawns and planted trees, while others prefer being in the wilderness. The researchers believe that this variation is also determined by both heredity and environment. “So it’s important that we don’t standardize nature when planning greenery in our towns and cities,” added SLU researcher and co-author Marcus Hedblom. “We shouldn’t replace wild greenery with a park and assume that it will be good for everyone.”

In today’s urban planning, densification has been a common way to achieve a more sustainable city, but this can sometimes conflict with efforts to offer nature in cities. A large number of studies suggest that urban parks and green spaces contribute to increased physical activity and recovery from stress, and trees can clean the air and provide shade to create a tolerable urban climate on hot days.  

“There are probably quite a large number of people who do not have such positive feelings towards nature, partly due to hereditary factors,” concluded Bengt. “Future studies that dig deeper into the interactions between hereditary and environmental factors are essential if we are to understand what shapes individuals’ relationships with nature. But we have to remember that we are all different and take that into account when planning for different natural areas in towns and cities. Let people find their own favorite green spaces.”