Many of us have been there at one time or another: working in an office or room with empty, white walls. It can make you want to a) either hang something on the walls or b) blow your brains out. Of course, this is assuming that the environment you are in has an effect on you. Scientists recently put the question to the test. Would hanging nature posters on the walls of an office reduce the stress and anger levels of people working in the office?
Why not just hang any old picture or artwork on the wall? Why nature posters?
Publishing an article about their research in the latest edition of the journal Environment and Behavior, Byoung-Suk Kweon and her colleagues cite several reasons why they thought that posters of landscapes might have a stronger soothing effect upon anger and stress than other types of artwork. The first reason as they explain it is that “several investigations have found that exposure to nature such as trees, grass, and flowers can effectively reduce stress.” Among the numerous examples they provide of studies, one of the most interesting they describe as so:
in another study, patients were observed to vandalize abstract pictures on walls of a mental health unit. Although certain abstract pictures were torn down, thrown on the floor, and smashed, there were no observed instances where nature pictures were the targets of aggressive attacks.
They suggest that the reason why people respond so positively to nature and images of nature might have to do with evolutionary theory. They explain it more eloquently than I might, so as they write:
the general argument is that the human species has evolved with natural environments over a long period of time and has relied on nature for such things as gaining shelter, food, as well as aesthetic pleasure. Consistent with this reasoning, settings that contain nature are consistently preferred to settings that do not contain nature.
Their other primary reason for thinking that nature posters might reduce stress and anger in the work place is more simple. They discuss distraction theory, which basically involves the idea that positive distractions will help relieve stress and anger during occasions when things aren’t going so well. Think for instance of when you have to go to a meeting or social event that seems like a chore. That piece of chocolate cake or those cookies that you eye across the room when you arrive cheers you up a little bit, right?
Kweon and her colleagues’ arguments for testing whether or not nature posters relieve stress and anger in offices are sound, but why should we care about how stressed people are in the work place (for more than obvious reasons)?
Stress and Anger in the Work Place Costs Us Money, Exposes Us to Potential Harm, and Is Just Plain Annoying
Kweon and company write that “Indeed, recent studies show that one in four American workers is chronically angry at work, contributing to more than 16,000 threats and 700 attacks in offices across the United States each work day.” They mention that this contributes to other bad things, like people missing work frequently, causing tension in the office, and creating health problems for the employee. “These adverse outcomes are estimated to cost American businesses billions of dollars each year.”
So, it is admirable that researchers want to find a way to help reduce stress and anger in the work place. Unfortunately, to study whether or not nature posters would relieve stress and anger in an office, the researchers needed to make their study participants have anger and stress, so then they could attempt to relieve it. How they conducted their experiment was clever, and for us, quite humorous reading.
The Experiment was Designed to Place Study Participants Unknowingly in Different Office Environments, and Then Annoy the Heck Out of Them
To test out their hypothesis that nature posters would reduce stress and anger in an office environment, Kweon and her fellow researchers designed an office space in a building at the University of Texas A&M. The office space had several computer consoles, some typical office furniture like file cabinets, and was altered for different stages of the experiment with different arrangements of wall posters. Sometimes the room would have no posters, sometimes a combination of 2 abstract posters and 2 nature posters, and then sometimes 4 landscape posters all at once. The posters were placed on walls that were adjacent to the computer stations, and were two to a wall. These different arrangements helped the scientists to test their hypotheses.
210 psychology students participated in the study, and were awarded a partial college credit for their time. They were not informed of the study’s actual objective. Instead, they were told that the research was an evaluation of how people performed on a number of computer tasks. The computer tasks that the students completed served two purposes. First, it allowed the scientists to annoy the students by having them attempt to do several computer tasks that were actually impossible to do correctly. More on this funny aspect of the study in a moment. The second purpose of the computer segment was to ask the students questions about how angry they were at the time, and also in general whether or not they considered themselves to be angry people. While the students were completing the computer tasks, the scientists were videotaping them to see if they looked at the posters or touched them, and how often. The students were never asked to look at the posters. Thus, with the data that students entered into the computers, the scientists could analyze how angry they were after completing the tasks, and how the presence or lack of posters in the room might have reduced their anger and stress levels.
There were four different computer activities that the students potentially were asked to do. Most of the tasks made annoying beeps to indicate that the computer user had done something incorrectly, or that they were performing much worse than most participants. Here’s how the scientists describe my two favorite tasks (I wish I could put them all, but space simply does not permit) :
Letter Detection Test
The task consisted of a moving train of letters B–F, proceeding from right to left or
left to right on a computer screen. For each trial, a target letter was defined. At the
occurrence of a target letter, participants needed to place the cursor on the target
letter. This task was difficult because of the quick movement of the letters. In addition,
participants received a mild sound stimulus. Participants were told that this
noise would go away if their task performance was superior to that of a comparable
student sample. However, the noise was not removed.
Object Tracing Task
The task was to ultimately trace an eight-pointed star using the mouse on a computer
screen within a short period of time. It is based on the Etch-A-Sketch task
(Zurawski & Houston, 1983). The mouse was programmed to move the cursor in
random directions other than the standard mouse direction and to occasionally
freeze. Also, screen messages were programmed to provide negative feedback such
as “You are 35% accurate, whereas other participants typically were 75% accurate.”
Perhaps this video illustrates what happens when someone participates in one of these kinds of computer tasks. Joking aside, what were the findings of this very cool study?
Nature Posters Help Calm Down the Gents, But Not the Ladies
The researchers make it very clear from the start that when it comes to anger and stress, previous research has shown that men and women are very different. For this reason, they analyzed their data considering this important factor. Interestingly, for women, the settings with posters created little difference in reducing anger and stress levels when compared to the experimental setting where there was no posters. For men, however, the effect was dramatic. The landscape posters that depicted nature relieved stress and anger levels dramatically. But abstract posters did as well.
Kweon and her research partners suggest that perhaps the difference between men and women might simply be attributed to the fact that prior studies have shown that it is more challenging to get women angry than it is men. They also write that “Another explanation may be that our anger-provoking tasks were more effective for males than for females. However, we have no data to support this explanation.”
In regard to the abstract posters being effective to a similar degree as the nature posters, the researchers suggest that this finding is contrary to what was found to be true in other studies. They hypothesize that some of the abstract posters they selected for the study were “inspired by nature” and maybe were not of the typical sort. So what does this all mean?
Implications for You, Mr. and Ms. Office Manager!
Seeing as that the stress and anger of your male employees might be reduced by nature posters, thus potentially preventing them from engaging in violent and hostile acts, hang up some landscape posters and other nature posters! The women who work in your office will probably enjoy them too. And I know it might be hard, but please don’t subject the workers in your office to annoying and infuriating computer tasks. Thank you.
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