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Ulrich 1979. Visual landscapes psych well-being

landscapes and psychological well-
Landscape Research
1 7-23.
Visual Landscapes and Psychological Well-Being
Department of Geography University of Delaware
The notion that exposure to nature is psychologically
healthful is very old, and has appeared in many cultures.
A more specific form of this hypothesis, advanced by
numerous writers through history, is the idea that
contact with plants, water, and other nature elements
can calm anxiety and help people cope with life's
an example, the renowned American
landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted strongly
believed that urban dwellers find nature relaxing, and
wrote that nature reproduced in urban settings brings
'tranquility and rest to the mind' (1870, p. 23). Today
this idea is frequently heard in subjective arguments
favouring, for example, city parks and the provision of
urban fringe wilderness areas. Given the persistence and
importance of the 'nature tranquility hypothesis',
surprising that this notion has remained virtually
untested by researchers.
The research described here is intended as a step towards
the evaluation of this hypothesis for the specific case of
visual contact with outdoor environments. Two principal
questions are addressed:
what effects, if any, does
visual perception of nature have on feelings of anxiety;
and 2) how do these effects compare with those
produced by views of urban environments lacking nature
elements? Environmental perception is of course multi-
sensory, and is not restricted to vision. If some types (as
opposed to levels) of environmental content or stimuli
do effect anxiety
is possible that senses such as hearing
or smell are also of importance. Nonetheless
is not
artificial to focus on visual aspects of landscapes. Vision
is by far our most important sense in terms of yielding
information about outdoor environments. Moreover,
features of life in modern societies
such as heavy
relipce on the automobile
have further heightened
the Importance of vision relative to other senses. The
individual. for example, who sits in an air-conditioned or
heated room and gazes outdoors through a double-paned
window, experiences the outside world almost entirely
in visual terms. In this example,
would be of interest
to planners as well as behavioral scientists to know
whether the type of landscape visible through the
window influences the individual's psychological well-
The basic design of the experiment involved showing
coloured slides of outdoor environments to two groups
of mildly stressed subjects. One group was shown 50
slides of unspectacular nature scenes dominated by green
vegetation. The other group viewed 50 urban scenes
lacking nature elements. The 'affect states' or feelings
of the subjects, defined primarily in terms of anxiety
emotions, were measured both immediately before and
after the slide exposures. Comparisons of the results for
different times' make possible inferences
concerning the anxiety reducing effects of the nature
and urban scenes. The principal hypothesis prior to the
data collection was that the anxiety levels of both
groups would decline during the slide viewings, but that
the group shown nature scenes would report
significantly lower post-slide levels than the group
exposed to urban views. More detailed discussions follow
concerning the procedures for selecting the slides, and
the methods of the experiment.
Selection of Slides
Given the major role of slides in the experiment,
should be pointed out that more than a score of studies
have supported the use of slides and photographs as
surrogates for 'real' environmental views (e.g. Shafer
and Richards, 1974; Zube, Pitt, and Anderson, 1974;
Sorte, 1975; Clamp, 1976.) Also, theories of psycho-
physiological arousal assign major importance to visual
properties of environments as factors affecting
psychological activation (e.g. Berlyne, 1971; Kuller, in
press). The notion that visual properties such as stimulus
complexity and colour affect a person's level of
'activation or arousal is generally accepted.
is a
reasonable assumption that such properties are
accurately simulated by colour slides. Most importantly,
the fact that responses and feelings related to visual
properties of environments are of salient concern
supports the validity of using slides as a simulation
The collections of nature and urban scenes were selected
from a larger group of more than 300 slides taken in
Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The slides were
taken in September, which meant that green vegetation
was the dominant content in the nature views. Insofar as
possible, the slides were taken under similar lighting and
sun-angle conditions. All slides were taken from the
ground; an attempt was made to avoid composing the
views. No people or animals were visible in either the
nature or urban collections. The absence of people
probably increasedthe pleasantness levels of the urban
as well as nature scenes (McClelland and Auslander,
1 976; Carls, 1974; Sorte, 1978).
Although the nature sample excluded built features,
many of the views in this collection were obviously man-
influenced. For example, several scenes in the final
sample of 50 slides showed parts of cultivated fields. The
urban scenes primarily depicted commercial landscapes,
and to a lesser extent industrial areas. The urban slides
excluded residential areas, churches, funeral agencies,
police stations, fire stations, and hospitals, because of
the possibility that emotional associations would bias
the results. The urban collection also excluded scenes
containing litter, graffiti, and other blight.
The final samples of
nature and
urban views were
selected to represent diversity in terms of elements such
as vegetation and building types. Also, each sample
presented a range of values for depth and complexity
(Ulrich, 1974, 1977). Complexity was an important
consideration in selecting the samples because the
complexity level of a visual display is known to affect
the perceiver's state of psycho-physiological arousal or
activation (Berlyne and McDonnell, 1965; Baker and
Franken, 1967). If slide samples had been chosen that
varied markedly in terms of complexity, this difference
alone could have produced significant variation in the
anxiety levels of the groups of subjects
obscuring findings concerning the influences of the
nature and urban content. With this point in mind, a
panel of judges procedure (Craik, 1970; Kaplan, 1972)
was utilized to obtain complexity ratings for each slide.'
On the basis of the judges' scores, the final samples were
chosen so that the overall complexity levels of the
nature and urban collections were similar (Table 1
practice, the balancing of the samples was achieved by
selecting urban slides with complexity values in the
lower ranges. and choosing nature scenes having scores
in the higher ranges.
These selection procedures meant that the sample of
nature slides
compared to most nature landscapes in
the northeastern United States
was unrepresentatively
high in complexity. The high complexity of the slides
was in many instances produced by rough textures and
coarse vegetation, and consequently many of the nature
scenes appeared 'scruffy' and comparatively unaesthetic.
(Figure 1). By contrast the urban sample
compared to
most American urban landscapes
was unrepresenta-
tively low in complexity, and included a dispropor-
tionate number of 'clean', neat urban views. Indeed, a
conscious attempt was made to include a large number
of attractive scenes in the urban sample. (Figure 2).
These characteristics of the samples meant that the
experiment was a conservative test of the psychological
effects of nature versus urban scenes.
Complexity Levels of Urban and Nature Scenes
General Nature Scenes Urban Scenes
Complexity Level (n
50) (n
Examples of Landscape Scenes-Nature Dominated by Vegetation
Examples of Landscape Scenes-Urban
Methods of Experiment
The subjects were
students in an introductory
geography course at the University of Delaware. The
students' fields of concentration were diverse, ranging
from the humanities to natural sciences. The subjects
had taken a one-hour course examination prior to the
experiment, and were therefore experiencing some
anxiety and elevation of arousal. Immediately upon
completing the exam the subjects were divided into two
groups and seated in identical windowless rooms.
the first step in the data collection, both groups were
asked to answer
questions of the Zuckerman
lnven tory of Personal Reactions (ZIPERS) Zuckerman,
1977). The ZIPERS is a broad affect test that measures
an individual's emotions and anxiety state at the
particular time the test
taken. The ZIPERS assesses
feelings on five factors: fear arousal, positive affect,
angerlaggression, attentiveness-coping, and sadness. The
respondent indicates on a
point scale the degree to
which each itern describes the way he feels 'now'.
Examplas of the items are:
I feel sad', and 'I feel
affectionate or warrr~hearted'.
Following the ZIPERS test, both groups witnessed slide
presentations that were procedurally identical. The
subjects were instructed to 'pay attention to the slides',
and were requested to rate the scenes relative to one
another on a 5-point aesthetic preference scale The
purpose of obtaining preference ratings was simply o
assure that the subjects paid attention to the slides.
Before commencing the ratings, the subjects were briefly
shown the first
slides from the collection in order to
reveal the range of content in the sample, and thereby
assist the individuals in making relative preference
judgements. Each group was then shown its sample of
nature or urban slides at intervals of
seconds. (An
second exposure time was chosen after trial runs of the
experiment. This interval proved of sufficient length to
permit unhurried perception of a scene, but at the same
time was not excessively long so as to allow the subject's
attention to wander). The entire slide procedure took
minutes. Upon cornpletion of the slide
presentation, the groups answered the ZIPERS items for
a second time. Lastly, the subjects were asked to provide
background information that included sex and the
general type of environment lived in before coming to
the University (rural area, small town, suburb, or city)
The data collections for both groups were synchronised
time-wise as they proceeded through the various stages
of the experiment. Thus, the single difference in the
groups' experiences stemmed from the variation in
content between the two collections of slides. This
meant that if the groups' anxiety levels changed in
different ways during the slide viewings, the variation
could be attributed to the nature versus urban content
difference of the slides.
Pre-Slide Affect Scores
A series of nonparametric Mann-Whitney U tests-
identified no statistically significant differences between
the groups' scores for the ZIPERS items prior to the
slides. These results indicate that affect levels, or feelings
and moods, were similar across groups prior to the slide
presentations. The mean values for the pre-slide ZIPERS
scores (Table 2) suggest that anxiety levels had indeed
been somewhat elevated by the examination prior to the
experiment. Compared to ZIPERS ratings obtained
during normal class sessions,the subjects' scores at the
beginning of the experiment indicated higher levels of
Fear Arousal and AngerlAgression, and lower levels of
Positive Affect. Levels of Sadness and Attentiveness
were similar to scores on normal class days.
Results: Effects of Urban Versus Nature Scenes
the first step in analysing the effects of the slide
exposures, each group's post-slide Z IPE RS scores were
compared with its scores at the beginning of the
experiment. A nonparametric test, Wilcoxon signed
ranks analysis (Siegel, 1956). was used in these within-
group comparisons to identify significant differences.
Unexpectedly, the results suggest that the group shown
urban scenes felt somewhat worse after the siide viewing
(Table 2). Although the urban group's post-slide scores
indicate some improvement (not significant) on the Fear
Arousal factor, the results reveal a pattern for the
subjects' emotional states to deteriorate in terms of the
other dimensions. While most of the differences between
the pre and post-slide scores are not significant, there is a
clear trend in the changes towards lower levels of
psychological well-being.
Of particular note is the significant increase in Sadness
(p<.025). Thus, exposure to the urban views appears to
have more aggravated than mitigated the subjects'
Affect Scores Before and After Slide Presentations
Affect Factor
Fear Arousal
Anger and Aggression
Positive ~ffect
Feel fearful
Heart is beating faster
Breathing faster
Feel angry or defiant
Feel like getting outof this
situation or avoiding
Feel like hurting or 'telling off'
Feel sad
Feel carefree or playful
Feel affectionate or warmhearted
Feel elated or pleased
Feel like acting friendly or
Feel attentive or concentrating
psychological states. The sharp decline in Attentiveness
(p<.01) can be interpreted as an indication that the
urban views were not effective in maintaining the
subjects' attention and interest.
In sharp contrast are the results for the nature scenes
(Table 2). The post-slide scores reflect a consistent
pattern of improvement in well-being, and the changes
for two factors are statistically significant. All four
individual items in the Positive Affect dimension show
marked increases, and the change
terms of the factor
as a whole is highly significant (p<.005), indicating that
the subjects had higher levels of positive feelings after
viewing the nature scenes. Likewise, the change in the
Fear Arousal factor is highly significant (p<.005), with
the declines in item scores indicating lower levels of
fearfulness and arousal or activation. In contrast to the
results for the urban group, the post-slide decline in
Attentiveness is not significant. Whereas the changes in
the Sadness and AngerIAgression factors are not
should be noted that the direction of
change for every item is toward improvement of well-
being. Overall the results strongly suggest that exposure
to the nature scenes had mitigating influences on the
subjects' anxiety states.
A direct comparison of the effects of the nature and
urban scenes is made in Table
The table lists the
magnitude and direction of change between pre and
post-slide Z IPERS scores.for both groups of subjects.
The 'change' figure for each item was calculated by
subtracting the mean pre-slide score from the post-slide
value. The 'difference between groups' for each item was
computed by subtracting the change of one group from
the change of the other. The 'difference between groups'
figure therefore represents the total change in a given
ZIPERS item directly,attributable to the effects of the
nature and urban scenes. A series of Mann-Whitney U
tests we're performed to determine if the differences
were statistically significant.
The results in Table
clearly support the conclusion
that the nature and urban slides had different effects on
the subjects' emotional states. The most salient
difference is in terms of the Positive Affect factor; a
Mann-Whitney test of the variation attributable to slide
content was highly significant (p=,002), indicating that
the effects of the nature and urban scenes on levels of
positive feelings were very different. Inspection of the
Urban Group Nature Group
Before After Before After
Slides Slides Slides SI ides
1.83 1.52 1.57 1.30 (p<.005
2.09 1.74 1.98
for factor)
1.83 1.57 1.45 1.17
1.78 1.65 1.87 2.35 (p<.005
1.96 2.00 1.94 2.65 for factor)
2.09 1.87 1.87 2.44
Comparison of Effects of Nature and Urban Slides on Affect States
Affect Factor
Fear Arousal
Anger and Aggression
Positive Affect
Feel fearful
Heart is beating faster
Breathing faster
Feel angry or defiant
Feel like getting out of this
situation or avoiding
Feel like hurting or 'telling off'
Feel sad
Feel carefree or playful
Feel affectionate or warmhearted
Feel elated or pleased
Feel like acting friendly or
Feel attentive or concentrating
data in Table
reveals that the variation in Positive
Affect arose primarily because exposure to the nature
scenes produced higher levels of positive feelings such as
friendliness and playfulness. A smaller component of
the variation was the tendency of the urban scenes to
reduce such feelings.
There was also a significant difference between the
urban and nature scenes in terms of effects on Sadness
(p=I)l). This variation arose primarily from the increase
in feelings of sadness produced by the urban scenes, and
not from the weak therapeutic influence of the nature
scenes. The results for the AngerlAggression factor
suggest mild improvement in well-being associated with
the nature exposures, and a tendency for the urban
scenes to aggravate feelings on this dimension. The
variation in terms of AngerlAggression is most marked
for the single item: 'I feel like hurting or telling off
someone' (p=.04). However, when the groups were
scaled on the basis of their changes for the entire factor,
the difference reached only p=.11. The results therefore
do not permit firm conclusions regarding differential
effects of the nature and urban scenes on feelings of
anger and aggression.
The variations between groups for the Fear Arousal and
Attentiveness factors are not significant. However,
be recalled that the within group decline in Fear Arousal
was significant for the individuals shown nature scenes,
but not for the group shown urban scenes. Also, there
was a significant decline in Attentiveness associated with
the urban slides, but not with the nature slides. This
implies that the nature scenes were somewhat more
effective than the urban scenes both in maintaining
attention and reducing fear arousal:.
Background Variables and Affect Scores
The final phase of the analysis tested whether the
subjects' affect states and affect changes differed as a
function of 1) sex or 2) the type of environment in
which they had grown up. The group shown nature
scenes included 10 males and 13 females; the group
shown urban scenes was comprised of 1 1 males and 12
females. A series of Mann-Whitney
tests revealed no
significant sex differences. These results are consistent
with a study by Zuckerman (1977), who found little
variation between sexes in state anxiety for a wide range
Change in
Urban Group
(from pre to
post-sl ide states)
Change in
Nature Group
(From pre to Difference
post-slide states) Between Groups
-.76 .41
-.28 .02
-.I8 .31 (p=.ll
for factor)
-26 .35
13 .60 (p=.Ol)
+.48 .61
+.71 .67
-.22 +.57 .79 (p=.002)
for factor)
of stress situations.
The subjects were also stratified on the bases of whether
they had grown up in a rural area (n=8), small town
(n=8), suburb (n=26), or city (n=4). Tests revealed no
significant differences in affect states or affect changes
as a function of these background environments. Similar
results were obtained when the subjects were stratified
into two larger groups (rural area and small town versus
suburb and city). Thus, the earlier findings concerning
differential effects of the nature and urban scenes apply
to both sexes in the study, and to subjects who had
grown up in different environments.
The findings suggest that stressed individuals feel
significantly better after exposure to nature scenes
rather than to American urban scenes lacking nature
elements. Compared to the influences of the urban
scenes, the salient effect of the nature exposures was to
increase Positive Affect
including feelings of affection
friendliness, playfulness, and elation. The increase in
positive affect produced by the nature scenes is
consistent with the finding that the nature exposures
also significantly reduced Fear Arousal. According to
psychological theories, a reduction in arousal or
activation produces pleasurable feelings if an individual
is experiencing stress or excessive arousal (Berlyne,
1971, pp. 81-82). In contrast to the nature scenes, the
urban views tended
work against emotional well-
being. The major effect of the urban scenes was to
significantly increase Sadness. There was ,also a
consistent but non-significant tendency for the urban
scenes to aggravate feelings of AngerlAggression, and for
the nature scenes to reduce such feelings. The urban
exposures also held the attention of subjects somewhat
less effectively than the nature exposures. These findings
were stable across sexes, and applied to subjects who had
grown up in either rural or urban environments.
The urban and nature scenes produced different changes
in psychological states despite the fact that the
complexity levels of the slide samples were similar.
Largely on the basis of laboratory studies by
psychologists using 'non-landscape' stimuli, complexity
has received considerable emphasis as a variable
influencing emotional activation. The findings hers
suggest the possibility that other visual properties
related to nature versus man-made differences
are also
of importance. It should also be pointed out that the
sample of urban scenes, compared to most American
urban landscapes, contained a disproportionately large
number of nonblighted, relatively aesthetic views. For
example, the urban collection included only one slide of
a roadside strip development; 'strips' are one of the most
common, as well as visually blighted, features in
American urban areas. The nature sample, on the other
hand, contained an unrepresentatively large number of
high complexity scenes that were 'scruffy' and relatively
unaesthetic in appearance. This meant that the
experiment was a conservative test of the effects of
nature versus urban scenes. If the slide collections had
been selected using a geographical sampling technique
rather than a procedure that favoured the urban scenes,
is likely that the differences among the effects of the
nature and urban scenes would have been even more
The findings have a number of implications for
environmental planning and design. At the most general
level, the results suggest that outdoor visual
environments can influence individuals' psychological
well-being, and therefore should be given explicit
attention in planning and design decisions. Most planners
have some sensitivity for aesthetic aspects of
environments, and in fact there exists some direct
empirical evidence showing that aesthetic benefits can be
of considerable importance (e.g. Ulrich, 1974; Shafer
and Mietz, 1969). The findings here imply that the
importance of visual landscapes is by no means limited.
to aesthetics, but also includes a range of influences on
emotional states. More specifically, an individual's
experiences in terms of his degree of visual contact
with nature or urban scenes may influence his feelings,
and in some instances have distinctly positive or negative
effects on his well-being. Although the findings clearly
favour nature scenes vis-a-vis American urban views, the
results should not be construed as an indictment on
psychological grounds of urban landscapes in general. It
is likely that the differences between the effects of the
two landscape categories would have been less if the
urban scenes had contained large amounts of nature
elements, and perhaps if the forms and materials of the
built structures were different. For planners, the results
support the notion that the benefits of providing
landscaping or nature-like views in urban areas extend
beyond aesthetics to include such psychological
'payoffs' as higher levels of positive affect. A related
implication is that location and design decisions for
some activities and institutions
such as high stress
workplaces and hospitals
should assign considerable
importance to providing 'through the window' contact
with nature. Does a pre-operative hospital patient
experience less anxiety if his window overlooks a park
rather than, say, a motorway or vegetationless parking
lot? Do school children feel more anxious in windowless
classrooms than in classrooms having window views of
nature? Does an individual recuperate more quickly at
home after a stressful workday if, for example, his
apartment complex has been planned to allow visual
contact with a forest or lake? The potential of visual
landscapes to reduce or heighten anxiety, and to
influence other aspects of emotional states, should be
considered in attempts to achieve more holistic
evaluations of planning effects. In
t.his regard there will
likely emerge a demand for landscape researchers to
develop procedures for assessing the psychological, as
well as aesthetic, 'resources' of visual landscapes.
This study has been intended as an exploratory first
step, and many research questions remain. To what
extent do the results apply to people of different ages,
levels of education, culture, etc? Do the differences
which characterise psychological response to nature and
urban views vary seasonally? How do people respond to
scenes containing water? Are nature views more
therapeutic than urban scenes for individuals
experiencing boredom and understimulation rather than
anxiety and high arousal? Is a scene's aesthetic value
related to its influence on emotional well-being? What
man-made forms, textures, and materials evoke
responses similar to those to nature elements? These and
other unresolved questions underline the fact that the
general issue of differential human response to nature
and built elements is of central importance to landscape
research and planning.
1 The panel of judges consisted of two geographers, a
psychologist, a landscape architect, and a layman. The
judges worked independently, and rated each nature and
urban scene on a five-point complexity scale.
Complexity was judged in a phenomenal, subjective.
sense; this criterion insured that the measure had
psychological relevance.
2 The fact that the subjects rated the slides for
preference relative to one another, rather than on an
absolute scale, reduced the possibility that the rating
procedure might influence the groups' emotional states
in different ways. The mean rating on the 5-point scale
for the nature scenes was 2.96, and for the urban scenes,
2.72. The difference between the means is not
significant. This'suggests that if the rating procedures per
se had any effects on the subjects' feelings, the influences
on the two groups were similar.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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