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Nature’s Broken Path to Restoration. A Critical Look at Attention Restoration Theory

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Over the past three decades, a growing body of environmental psychology research has demonstrated that interacting with natural environments – and especially greenspace – can have beneficial psychological effects on human individuals. One influential and widely-cited theoretical account to explain such effects is Attention Restoration Theory (ART). ART zooms in on the cognitive benefits nature can yield, and assumes that when an individual’s ability to concentrate or direct attention has become depleted, then nature is well-equipped to replenish this capacity. Nature’s restorative potential is thought to especially derive from its soft fascinating characteristics; these can put an individual in an effortless mode of attention, thereby giving directed attention a relative opportunity to rest and replenish itself. Although ART has been highly influential in the field of restoration studies and continues to inspire health promotion interventions, with the current paper we aim to show that the framework has important empirical and conceptual shortcomings. We specifically aim to show (a) that some of ART’s principal theoretical notions are vague (e.g., soft fascination), have remained underdeveloped, and lack a clear operationalization, (b) that the framework has failed to (adequately) test its main theoretical predictions (i.e., that nature effects are recovery effects), and (c) that there is currently little support for the ART-based assumption that restoration is – or derives from – an ancient evolved adaptive response. We conclude our paper with discussing four outstanding questions for ART, and make methodological suggestions that could potentially address some of ART’s current shortcomings.
Nature’s Broken Path to Restoration. A Critical Look at Attention Restoration Theory
Yannick Joye1, Siegfried Dewitte2
1 University of Groningen,
2 University of Leuven,
Over the past three decades, a growing body of environmental psychology research has
demonstrated that interacting with natural environments – and especially greenspace – can have
beneficial psychological effects on human individuals. One influential and widely-cited
theoretical account to explain such effects is Attention Restoration Theory (ART). ART zooms
in on the cognitive benefits nature can yield, and assumes that when an individual’s ability to
concentrate or direct attention has become depleted, then nature is well-equipped to replenish
this capacity. Nature’s restorative potential is thought to especially derive from its soft
fascinating characteristics; these can put an individual in an effortless mode of attention, thereby
giving directed attention a relative opportunity to rest and replenish itself. Although ART has
been highly influential in the field of restoration studies and continues to inspire health
promotion interventions, with the current paper we aim to show that the framework has
important empirical and conceptual shortcomings. We specifically aim to show (a) that some of
ART’s principal theoretical notions are vague (e.g., soft fascination), have remained
underdeveloped, and lack a clear operationalization, (b) that the framework has failed to
(adequately) test its main theoretical predictions (i.e., that nature effects are recovery effects),
and (c) that there is currently little support for the ART-based assumption that restoration is – or
derives from – an ancient evolved adaptive response. We conclude our paper with discussing
four outstanding questions for ART, and make methodological suggestions that could potentially
address some of ART’s current shortcomings.
Keywords: Attention Restoration Theory, soft fascination, directed attention, criticism
Nature’s Broken Path to Restoration. A Critical Look at Attention Restoration Theory
In their influential 2008 article, Berman, Jonides and Kaplan ask their readers to
“(i)magine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve
your cognitive functioning at zero cost” (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008, 1207). The therapy
they have in mind, and for which they hope to gather empirical support, is to go out into nature.
While beliefs about nature’s healing potential are part and parcel of many current and past
cultures, and will, for many, resonate with personal experience, the last three decades a growing
body of environmental psychology research has sought to confirm this notion.
But whence this apparently unique capacity of nature to mentally invigorate and sooth us?
Is it because (being in) nature invites physical exercise, provides us with opportunities for social
contact, or reminds us of relaxing times and activities (e.g., holidays)? Is it because nature, more
so than urban and/or indoor environments, offers us fresh air and daylight? While these and other
factors have indeed been shown to contribute to nature’s salutogenic effects (for a review:
Hartig, Mitchell, de Vries, & Frumkin, 2014), environmental psychology research demonstrates
that already the direct perceptual (i.e., visual) experience of nature scenes and elements –
especially vegetation and water features – can positively impact individuals, by counteracting
stress (Ulrich et al., 1991) and facilitating the recovery from mental fatigue (Kaplan, 1995;
Berman et al., 2008). Such effects are commonly labelled as “restorative” nature experiences, as
they seemingly involve a recovery from depleted cognitive resources and/or undo negative
psychophysiological states.
In research on restorative experiences, two important theoretical frameworks have been
proposed to explain nature’s restorative effects, namely Stress Recovery Theory (SRT; Ulrich,
1983; Ulrich et al., 1991) and Attention Restoration Theory (ART; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989;
Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan & Berman, 2010). SRT especially aims to elucidate how contact with
nature can reduce (psychophysiological) stress in individuals. Drawing on evolutionary
psychology (e.g., Tooby & Cosmides, 1992), SRT specifically assumes that the human species is
biologically prepared to rapidly display positive affect towards natural, vegetation-rich
environments (Ulrich, 1983; Ulrich, 1993; Ulrich et al., 1991; Parsons, Tassinary, Ulrich, Hebl,
& Grossman-Alexander, 1998). The argument goes that such a response was adaptive for
ancestral humans, because it facilitated their quest for food, water, and places to shelter (see
especially Ulrich, 1993). Based on the evolutionary psychology hypothesis that the modern
human brain is wired for the Stone-Age (Tooby & Cosmides, 1997), SRT assumes that in our
modern era natural settings and elements still produce positive affect in individuals, which may
consequently reduce, or even buffer psychophysiological stress.
Where SRT zooms in on people’s immediate affective responses to nature as a driver of
restoration, ART focuses on the potential cognitive benefits that can derive from interactions
with natural environments (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan & Berman, 2010). A
central notion in ART is “directed attention”, which can be defined as the effortful process to
focus or concentrate on objects or events, while at the same time blocking out distracting
stimulation. While ART considers directed attention to be a limited resource that can be depleted
after long and/or intensive use, it also claims that certain environments – especially natural
environments – are able to facilitate/support the recovery from a state of attentional depletion.
According to ART, the reason is that nature is often rife with (soft) fascinating stimuli that
capture one’s attention in an automatic, bottom-up way. This minimizes the demands on
(effortful) directed attention, and consequently allows this capacity to rest and restore itself.
Over the last three decades empirical evidence for nature’s restorative benefits has been
steadily accumulating. Restoration researchers have – amongst others – attempted to chart the
positive cognitive (for a review: Ohly et al., 2016), affective (for a review: McMahan & Estes,
2015) and psychophysiological effects of nature contact (e.g., Ulrich et al., 1991; Hartig, Evans,
Jamner, Davis, & Gärling, 2003; Chang, Hammitt, Chen, Machnik, & Su, 2008; Van Den Berg
& Custers, 2011). Efforts have been made to determine the optimal dose (Barton & Pretty, 2010;
Shanahan et al., 2016) and modality (e.g., virtual versus real nature; Pals, Steg, Dontje, Siero, &
van Der Zee, 2014) of nature for restoration, while research has also demonstrated how
restorative nature effects can depend on group characteristics (e.g., elderly: Ottosson & Grahn,
2005; children: Taylor & Kuo, 2008; Ulset, Vitaro, Brendgen, Bekkhus, & Borge, 2017), on
individuals’ salient identities (e.g., Morton, van der Bles, & Haslam, 2017) or on the life stage
one is in (Scopelliti & Giuliani, 2004).
While nature restoration has occasionally been studied from a qualitative perspective – for
example by taking interviews on nature experiences and activities (cfr., Hawkins, Mercer,
Thirlaway, & Clayton, 2013) – the majority of restoration studies are quantitative. Such
quantitative studies have made use of secondary data to establish a link between restoration and
access to natural environments (White, Pahl, Ashbullby, Herbert, & Depledge, 2013), but
oftentimes nature’s restorative benefits are experimentally researched within lab or field settings,
using both subjective (i.e., self-report) and objective measures of emotional and
attentional/cognitive functioning (e.g., Joye, Pals, Steg, & Lewis-Evans, 2013). Key findings and
reviews on restoration have been published in highly prestigious academic journals (e.g.,
Science: Ulrich, 1984; Hartig & Kahn, 2016; The Lancet: Hartig & Marcus, 2006), have become
highly cited1, and have received ample media coverage – all of which testifies to the importance
of this research field, within academia and beyond.
The insight that nature can make people thrive is also increasingly applied to (different
parts of) our daily lives. Based on restoration research, healthcare professionals and instances
promote contact with natural environments as a means to bolster psychological health and
wellbeing, or to reduce pain and stress during clinical interventions (Diette, Lechtzin, Haponik,
Devrotes, & Rubin, 2003; Tanja-Dijkstra et al., 2017). Contact with greenery has been found to
boost children’s cognitive performance in the classroom (Van den Berg, Wesselius, Maas, &
Tanja-Dijkstra, 2017), and to enhance workers’ mood and productivity in office settings
(Korpela, De Bloom, & Kinnunen, 2015; Steidle, Gonzalez-Morales, Hoppe, Michel, & O’Shea,
2017). In the commercial sphere, retail environments are greened up to lift the mood of
consumers, and to consequently boost their willingness to pay and/or buy (Joye, Willems,
Brengman, & Wolf, 2010; Brengman, Willems, & Joye, 2012; Rosenbaum, Otalora, & Ramírez,
2016). Based on the various psychological benefits of nature contact, in some countries
(governmental) campaigns have even been initiated to raise awareness of nature’s soothing
psychological effects (e.g., “green schoolyards” in the Netherlands).
While laudable, the search for further empirical confirmation and for promising
applications of nature’s salutogenic effects has – in our view – also come with a cost, in that the
field of restoration studies has reached a theoretical standstill. Since already three decades SRT
and ART have been standing as the main and seemingly undisputable explanatory frameworks
for restorative nature experiences, despite some striking limitations and issues. In this paper, we
1 For example, Kaplan & Kaplan (1989) receives 5915 citations on Google Scholar, whereas Ulrich (1984) receives
4422 citations (date: 6 June 2018).
aim to start overturning this theoretical status quo2. For this, we will review the main theoretical
assumptions underlying the field of restoration research, and point to a number of important
empirical and conceptual shortcomings. Note that with our critical review we will specifically
target ART, rather than SRT, as the former theory has barely received any systematic criticism
(for critiques on SRT, see e.g., Kaplan, 1995; Joye & Van den Berg, 2011).
General outline
In what follows, we critically examine the main theoretical and empirical assumptions of
ART. In a nutshell, ART states that nature’s soft fascinating characteristics (i.e., the independent
variable) can lead to a recovery of directed attention (i.e., the dependent variable), and this effect
is driven by the capacity of fascinating (natural) environments to trigger bottom-up involuntary
attention (i.e., the mediator). In the ensuing critical review, we aim to pinpoint difficulties with
all three elements of ART’s basic model. In our first two criticisms, we address the DV side of
the model, and ask whether there is currently sufficient evidence for the assumption that
restorative nature effects are recovery effects (Assumption 1), and that a particular cognitive
resource (i.e. directed attention) is replenished during this recovery process (Assumption 2).
Next, we focus on the IV side of the model, and argue that the notion of soft fascination is vague
and conceptually underdeveloped, and is currently lacking a clear operationalization
(Assumption 3 and Assumption 4). We then move on to the proposed mediator for attention
restoration, and point out that, besides being untested, it is far from even-handed that the (often
2 This theoretical standstill is probably also exacerbated by the fact that some restoration studies are only loosely
based on ART or SRT, and are not particularly interested in rigorously testing ART’s/SRT’s highly specific
mundane) natural settings used in restoration research are able to trigger bottom-up involuntary
attention in the first place (Assumption 5). Following this, we zoom out, and question the
broader evolutionary background of ART, i.e., the assumption that natural fascinations are
restorative because they ultimately fulfilled an adaptive function in ancestral environments
(Assumption 6). We close off with some outstanding questions, such as why being in a state of
fascination is associated with cognitive effortlessness rather than effortfulness.
Assumption 1: Restorative nature effects are recovery effects
One of ART’s central assumptions is that when individuals are attentionally fatigued,
contact with natural settings can relax the demands on directed attention, thereby giving this
capacity an opportunity to recover and replenish itself (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan, 1995;
Kaplan & Berman, 2010). Because urban environments often contain dramatically distracting
stimulation (e.g., car horns, billboards: Berman et al., 2008), in such settings directed attention
may need to be further recruited to block out that stimulation, thereby potentially exacerbating
directed attention fatigue. Thus, in the most common theoretical characterization of ART,
restorative nature experiences are assumed to be recovery effects: nature facilitates the
replenishment of an initially depleted resource, i.e., directed attention.
Several ART-based studies are aimed at testing whether restorative environments indeed
foster a recovery from attentional fatigue (e.g., Laumann, Gärling, & Stormark, 2003; Hartig et
al., 2003; Bodin & Hartig, 2003; Berto, 2005; Berman et al., 2008; Shin, Shin, Yeoun, & Kim,
2011; Berman et al., 2012). Such studies typically start off by administering participants a task
that induces a state of attentional fatigue in them, which is then followed by an environmental
treatment (oftentimes exposure to, or immersion in natural versus urban settings), and the target
measurement of participants’ attentional/cognitive functioning. Employing this experimental
paradigm, several studies find that (fatigued) individuals who have subsequently been exposed
to, or immersed in natural/green environments (e.g., forests, parks) score better on the (target)
attentional/cognitive task than individuals exposed to urban settings (Joye & Van den Berg,
While the results of such ART-based studies are often interpreted in terms of a
(cognitive/attentional) recovery process, it is worth emphasizing that it is common practice to
fatigue all participants before environmental exposure in such studies (Beute & De Kort, 2014).
Besides notable exceptions (e.g., Hartig et al., 2003; Hartig, Böök, Garvill, Olsson, & Gärling,
1996), the vast majority of restoration studies does not include a control group of low-fatigued
individuals to compare the results of the experimental group with (see Ohly et al., 2016 for an
overview). With this paradigm, it obviously becomes impossible to determine whether superior
(cognitive/attentional) performance after seeing nature (versus urban scenes) in fatigued
individuals is diagnostic of a recovery from directed attention depletion, or whether it signals an
entirely different process, unrelated to recovery (e.g., vitalizing and energizing potential of
natural versus urban settings: Ryan et al., 2010). One of ART’s major theoretical claims thus
remains to be tested.
The absence of a control group in restoration studies, in and of itself does not disconfirm
ART’s recovery idea. That could only happen if, in one and the same study, a control group of
low-fatigued individuals were shown to benefit as much from the nature intervention as highly
fatigued individuals. While systematic and extensive research on this issue is currently lacking,
some initial evidence speaks to this idea. Beute and De Kort (2014), for example, found that
individuals were better able to self-regulate after exposure to natural versus urban scenes, and
showed that this effect occurred for (ego) depleted as well as for non-depleted participants. In
line with this finding, prominent restoration researchers propose that “restorative” nature
experiences can indeed go beyond mere (attentional resource) replenishment, and point out that
“interacting with such environments can restore and even improve directed attention abilities”
(Kaplan & Berman, 2010, 52; italics added; see also: Collado, Staats, Corraliza, & Hartig, 2017).
But how to reconcile ART with the claim that nature can boost attentional functioning?
After all, the theory explains the cognitive benefits of interacting with nature solely in terms of
facilitating a return to baseline levels of an initially depleted attentional resource (through
fascination, and other supporting restorative components). Because ART assumes that nature
does not causally intervene in the process of restoration itself, the framework seems by definition
unable to explain how nature could boost attentional performance beyond that baseline.
Combined with the fact that there is currently little empirical evidence for ART’s recovery idea,
it might be worthwhile – and even more parsimonious – to explore the explanatory potential of
non-depletion accounts for beneficial cognitive nature effects.
Assumption 2: Directed attention is restored
While ART identifies directed attention as the main cognitive resource that can be restored
through contact with natural environments (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan &
Berman, 2010), this capacity has not been uniformly operationalized in restoration studies (Ohly
et al., 2016). As research stands, restoration researchers have used a fairly heterogeneous and
broad set of cognitive tasks to gauge restoration (Ohly et al., 2016), including – but not limited to
– proofreading (e.g., Hartig, Mang, & Evans, 1991), the Trail Making Test (e.g., Shin et al.,
2011), the Stroop Task (e.g., Taylor & Kuo, 2008), the Sustained Attention to Response Task
(e.g., Berto, 2005), or the Digit Span Backward/Forward (e.g., Berman et al., 2008; Berman et
al., 2012).
Importantly, the foregoing tasks vary in the type of cognitive functions they primarily
capture. This poses a challenge for ART, as such functional variety makes it difficult to ascertain
whether nature effects on one or more of these tasks either reflect (restoration of) directed
attention functioning or some other cognitive functions or phenomena. Very probably, however,
executing any of the aforementioned tasks requires some directed attention capacity, merely
because one needs a good deal of focus and concentration to complete them. And if the common
denominator between the cognitive tasks used in ART studies turns out to be directed attention,
is it then not justified to conclude that nature-induced cognitive effects reflect directed attention
functioning? Not necessarily, since such cognitive effects are consistent with, and can in
principle also be diagnostic of other processes triggered by fascinating natural scenes, such as
increased vitality (Ryan et al., 2010) or task motivation (Silvia, 2008). To the best of our
knowledge, such plausible alternative explanations have not been systematically explored, nor
have they been ruled out within the context of ART.
Note furthermore that a recent meta-analysis reveals that – from the broad arsenal of
objective measures used in ART-based research – especially an overall positive significant effect
of nature exposure was found for tasks tapping working memory performance (Ohly et al., 2016;
see: Hartig & Jahncke, 2017, for a critical review of aspects of this meta-analysis). Are we
therefore to conclude that nature is especially beneficial for working memory (e.g., Digit Span
Forward), rather than for directed attention? Or, is working memory task performance one of the
best ways to capture directed attention capacity? But if so, why then are other tasks than memory
tasks being used to gauge directed attention? In its current form, and testifying to its theoretical
underdevelopment, the literature on attention restoration does not provide clear-cut answers to
these questions. What seems certain, however, is that the current available empirical evidence for
nature’s cognitive benefits does not unambiguously support the hypothesis, central to ART, that
nature especially benefits the execution of directed attention.
Assumption 3: Nature’s fascinating qualities restore directed attention
Within ART, the attention restoring capacity of natural environments is (among others)
situated in the fact that such environments are more fascinating, or contain more fascinating
elements than urban environments. Fascination assumes a central explanatory role in ART: it
implies a state of effortless bottom-up attention, through which demands on directed attention
can be relaxed, allowing this limited resource to replenish itself. Restoration researchers have
mentioned “clouds, sunsets, snow patterns, the motion of the leaves in the breeze” (Kaplan,
1992, 139), or “waterfalls, caves and fires” (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989) as typical instances of
(natural) fascinations.
Importantly, in restoration studies participants are only rarely – if ever – exposed to caves,
fires, clouds or sunsets, but they are rather typically shown, or immersed in, vegetation-rich
environments, including park-like settings, meadows or forests. While there seems to be general
agreement on the idea that the restorativeness of such greenspace is (partly) due to its fascinating
qualities, at the same time there is currently very little known about what it is about such
restorative green settings – in terms of physical/visual attributes – that makes them fascinating in
the first place (see also: Valtchanov & Ellard, 2015; Van den Berg, Joye, & Koole, 2016).
Fascination is thus put forward as one of ART’s central explanatory principles, but at the same
time the notion itself has remained remarkably underexplained. Adding to this conceptual
vagueness is the issue that it even remains to be systematically empirically verified that
fascination is indeed a crucial driver of restorative nature effects.
Assumption 4: Nature’s soft fascinating qualities restore directed attention and enable
reflection (a.k.a. “full” restoration)
According to ART “full” restoration does not solely amount to a mere recovery of directed
attention capacity; part of a restorative experience is that individuals also have an opportunity to
reflect on unsolved (life) issues (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Herzog, Black, Fountaine, & Knotts,
1997). Through such reflection, internal noise that could otherwise further burden directed
attention capacity can be reduced (Basu, Duvall, & Kaplan, 2018)
Importantly, not all fascinations are equally suited to reach the stage of full restoration.
Certain fascinating events or phenomena might perhaps facilitate attention restoration by
effortlessly attracting attention (e.g., attending a sports event), but they might at the same time
also be so absorbing or dramatic that they leave little place for reflection, thereby making it
difficult for individuals to attain full restoration (Herzog et al., 1997). Proponents of ART have
specified that full restoration will especially occur upon exposure to natural stimuli or
environments that trigger “soft” fascination, a notion referring to a positively valenced but less
dramatic type of fascination (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Herzog et al., 1997). Soft fascinating
settings attract effortless attention in a moderate and pleasant way, and thereby leave ample place
for the mind to wander, for unbidden thoughts to occur, and for serious reflection about
important (life) issues.
Despite the importance of soft fascination to reach full restoration, to our knowledge the
optimal softness level of fascination that is needed to provoke a full restorative experience has
not been clarified in ART, nor has it been explained which attributes make a fascinating stimulus
or environment soft rather than hard fascinating (e.g., size, intensity, duration of the stimulus).
Adding to this conceptual vagueness is the issue that the commonly used instruments to gauge
fascination (e.g., Perceived Restoration Scale: Hartig, Korpela, Evans, & Gärling, 1997;
Restorative Components Scale: Laumann et al., 2001) do not differentiate between hard and soft
fascination (see also: Basu et al., 2018). The theoretically predicted role of soft fascination thus
not only remains untested, the major (validated) instruments to probe fascination are not even
designed to test it.
We agree that it may be hard to define a particular point at which soft fascination turns into
hard fascination, or vice versa. But without a minimal specification of the bandwidth of optimal
softness, any stimulus could potentially be considered as soft fascinating, whereby the notion
runs the risk of becoming unfalsifiable. As long as it is not clarified how much softness is
required for full restoration to occur, we remain unable to fully understand, and explain why
exactly natural, vegetation-rich environments are generally more restorative than urban settings.
Assumption 5: Nature is restorative by virtue of bottom-up effortless attention
So far, we have discussed what is needed for restoration to occur: namely that natural
environments have softly fascinating characteristics. A next question is how (soft) fascination
facilitates restoration. As pointed out earlier, in ART fascination is assumed to be akin to
(effortless) bottom-up attention (Berman et al., 2008; Kaplan & Berman, 2010), and by
recruiting this type of attention the capacity for (effortful) top-down attention is not further
burdened, but instead given an opportunity to replenish itself. Nature is restorative by virtue of
its fascinating – and hence bottom-up – aspects, whereas urban settings command, and might
therefore further deplete, top-down attention.
While being one of ART’s central theoretical theses, the assumption that fascinating nature
recruits bottom-up attention remains to be empirically verified. What is more is that there seems
to be a seeming misfit between this theoretical notion and the particular characteristics of the
natural environments used in restoration studies. Specifically, it is well known that bottom-up
attention is typically activated by stimuli that stand out and inadvertently attract attention: think
for example of a bright red bird in a green tree canopy, the sudden flash of a lightning bolt
(Corbetta & Shulman, 2002), or as Stephen Kaplan (1995, 170) mentions “… wild animals,
danger, caves, blood…”. Note, however, that in restoration experiments participants often have
to passively watch visuals (e.g., videos, photographs) of, or to walk in fairly unspectacular,
mundane natural settings (e.g., urban park), seemingly devoid of things that truly stand out3.
When turning to the urban perspective, it has been noted that “… urban environments are
filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically” (Berman et al., 2008, 1207), and that
directed attention fatigue can ensue, or is exacerbated, when top-down attention is required to
block out this dramatic stimulation. Also this theoretical assumption is not evidently reflected in
the stimuli that are used: in numerous restoration studies participants have to watch
images/videos of fairly ordinary streetscapes, which clearly lack any of the “dramatic” features
that might cause or worsen attentional fatigue. Note that even if the urban scenes would display
dramatic stimulation, it is unsure whether – at least in a lab setting – participants would
3 It might be argued that nature recruits bottom-up attention mainly because of the evolutionary significance of
natural settings, and not so much because of salient visual characteristics (Awh, Belopolsky, & Theeuwes, 2012).
We refer to our discussion of Assumption 6, where we address this point.
experience a need to overcome that stimulation, given the passive viewing setup characteristic of
such restoration studies.
Restoration has been claimed to result from the workings of effortless bottom-up attention
(or: fascination) recruited by nature, and effortful top-down attention (or: directed attention)
commanded by urban settings (Berman et al., 2008; Kaplan & Berman, 2010; Berman et al.,
2012). However, the fact that beneficial nature effects occur using fairly mundane exemplars of
both stimulus categories not only suggests that ART does not strictly test what it theoretically
predicts, but it also challenges the notion that those nature effects are to an important extent
driven by the interplay between bottom-up and top-down attention. If anything, it seems that the
stimulation that is thought to underlie the depleting aspects of urban environments (Kaplan &
Berman, 2010) – e.g., car horns, billboards, or any other dramatic stimulation – fits the
description of typical input of bottom-up attention much better than the natural scenes used in
restoration research (Corbetta & Shulman, 2002).
Assumption 6: Fascination with natural settings has an evolved origin
For ART’s sixth theoretical assumption, we turn away from the proposed proximate to
the ultimate mechanism for attention restoration, and focus on the idea – made by prominent
restoration researchers – that restorative nature experiences are ultimately rooted in our shared
evolution in natural settings (cfr., Kaplan, 1977; Hartig et al., 1996; Van den Berg, Hartig, &
Staats, 2007; Staats, 2012; Collado et al., 2017). This view is for instance expressed by Stephen
Kaplan who claims that because “…our ancestors evolved in a nature-filled environment…
[nature] should feel more comfortable, more relaxed, more like home. It’s not a big leap between
that and being more competent, less distracted” (Kaplan cited in Jaffe, 2010). Kaplan’s
acknowledgment of the evolved origins, and possibly adaptive function(s) of our positive
(cognitive and emotional) responses to nature, resonates with Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia
hypothesis (1984; Kellert & Wilson, 1995), as well as with the tenets of SRT (Ulrich, 1983;
Ulrich et al., 1991; Ulrich, 1993), both of which consider mankind’s affective bond with nature
as an (adaptive) remnant of our evolutionary past in natural settings.
ART’s evolutionary theorizing starts off from the idea that “…much of what was
important to the evolving human – wild animals, danger, caves, blood, to name a few examples –
was (and still is) innately fascinating…” (Kaplan, 1995, 170). From this perspective, one of the
ultimate functions of fascination – the central driver of attention restoration – was thus to
selectively attend to stimuli of evolutionary significance, including possible threat cues (e.g.,
predators), as well as cues signalling reward value (e.g., food, mates). The view that natural
stimuli/characteristics can be innately attention grabbing, receives support from empirical
research hinting at an evolved propensity to display selective attention towards animate motion
(Pratt, Radulescu, Guo, & Abrams, 2010), as well as to certain biological kinds (Yorzinski,
Penkunas, Platt, & Coss, 2014).
If especially green environments/elements grab attention, generate (aesthetic) interest, and
have restorative potential, then this of course raises the question what the evolutionary
significance was of selective attention to such settings/elements. Proponents of ART have argued
that, inasmuch as “(w)ater, trees, and foliage are all indicators of the habitats in which human
survival is more likely” (Kaplan 1987, 25), an aesthetic interest/fascination could guide and
facilitate the process of finding a safe retreat that contained life-sustaining elements, such as food
and water. When individuals are nowadays exposed to nature, and specifically to greenery and
foliage, then this still effortlessly draws attention (i.e., fascination), with a number of
downstream effects, including restoration from directed attention fatigue (Van den Berg et al.,
2007). The upshot is that “… people will restore better in environments that have characteristics
that were relevant for survival during early evolution” (Collado et al., 2017, 129).
Given the idea that the adaptive function of fascination with green settings was to guide
humans to “good habitats”, one would expect fascination – and hence restoration – to especially
occur for green settings/elements that actually provided food, water and safety for ancestral
humans, or at least contained specific cues diagnostic of these. Based on this, researchers
studying evolved responses to landscapes have argued (Orians, 1980; Orians & Heerwagen,
1992; Heerwagen & Orians, 1993; Coss, 2003) that individuals should be particularly drawn to
trees with broad canopies (offering protection against adverse weather conditions) and short
trunks (making them easily climbable), and by verdant, fruit-bearing vegetation (indicating the
nearness of water and food).
While there is some (mixed) evidence for an aesthetic preference for savanna-type
settings and trees (Balling & Falk, 1982; Sommer & Summit, 1995; Summit & Sommer, 1999;
Lohr & Pearson-Mims, 2006; Falk & Balling, 2010), to the best of our knowledge, there is still a
dearth of research that systematically tests the fascinating qualities, and superior restorative
qualities of green settings that can afford resources and protection. More importantly, and in
seeming contrast to the view that selective attention to such settings is an adaptive response,
studies show that restoration occurs towards green settings/elements in general (Velarde, Fry, &
Tveit, 2007), many of which lack obvious indicators of a high-quality habitat (i.e., cues of food,
water and refuge). ART has thus posited the existence of an adaptive response, but this response
also appears to occur for environments that do not evidently solve the problem for which this
adaptation presumably has been designed for by natural selection (Joye & Van den Berg, 2011).
In view of this, it remains very unsure whether a general fascination with foliage and greenery
could have promoted our ancestors’ fitness.
Outstanding issues
Our critical review suggests that ART faces substantial conceptual and empirical issues,
which call for further theoretical development of the framework, and point to the importance of
additional empirical verification of central theoretical assumptions. Below, we list four further
outstanding issues/questions, which – we feel – have not been adequately or explicitly addressed
and/or clarified within ART.
How do fleeting episodes of bottom-up attention support restoration?
Attention restoration is commonly interpreted as a process that needs time to unfold (e.g.,
Hartig et al., 1996), and that is triggered by, and ascribed to (natural) environments in their
entirety (cfr., “Natural environments, such as parks, gardens, and lakefronts, are able to capture
involuntary attention…”, Kaplan & Berman, 2010, 48), whereas bottom-up involuntary attention
is well-known to be short-lived and triggered by constituent scene elements (Corbetta &
Shulman, 2002). Given these outspoken differences in terms of temporal and spatial resolution
between the explanandum (i.e., restoration via nature contact) and explanans (i.e., bottom-up
attention), the question arises of how exactly seemingly fleeting and “local” episodes of
involuntary attention can mutually combine or connect, so as to support a full-blown restorative
experience towards an entire environment or scene4.
Why does hard fascination preclude reflection?
ART suggests that because soft fascinating scenes are only moderately distracting, they
leave ample room for reflection about important life issues, and thereby enable individuals to
reach full restoration (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan & Berman, 2010). But why should soft
(rather than hard) fascination be a necessary requirement for reflection? Research on individuals’
responses to awe-inspiring nature (Keltner & Haidt, 2003), for example, suggests that deeply
fascinating natural settings and phenomena (e.g., the Grand Canyon) can be mind-fulling, but at
the same time also make individuals reflective and mindful about themselves, their lives, and
their place in the world, by virtue of their profoundly attention grabbing qualities (Jefferies &
Lepp, 2012; Pearce, Strickland-Munro, & Moore, 2017)5. By inducing a sense of self-
4 While we are aware that Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) point out that a restorative environment needs to have extent,
whereby disparate fascinating elements become connected (to a larger framework), this still leaves us with the
question as to how exactly such connectedness is reached.
5 There can, of course, be differences between reflective episodes stemming from encounters with soft fascinating
settings versus reflection originating from hard fascinating, awe-evoking environments. For instance, reflection in
hard fascinating (natural) environments probably occurs only after, and not during the fascinating experience. In
addition, reflection in soft fascinating environments is probably due to mind-wandering, while in the case of awe-
evoking settings it might result from the realization of one’s own insignificance in the larger scheme of things (Piff
et al., 2015). In ART, it has however not been specified that the exact moment of reflection, the kind of reflection, or
the pathway through which reflection is reached are diagnostic for the reflective episode of a restorative experience.
diminishment vis-à-vis the world (Piff, Dietze, Feinberg, Stancato, & Keltner, 2015), and self-
transcendence (Stellar et al., 2017), such hard fascinating environments might very well promote
the “self-distanced perspective taking”, which certain ART researchers assume to be crucial for
reflection on life issues (Kaplan & Berman, 2010). The experience of such hard fascinating
nature – and the reflective mindset it may promote – is far from uncommon, which makes us
wonder whether the theoretical distinction between hard and soft fascination is adequate and
necessary to explain full restoration.
Why is soft fascination required for ART?
Soft fascination is triggered by pleasantly distracting visual information that puts
individuals in an effortless mode of attention (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan &
Berman, 2010). However, given the fact that within ART attention restoration is regarded as an
autonomous and self-replenishing process, it is unclear why soft fascination should be a
necessary theoretical component of the framework, as prominent ART researchers suggest (cfr.,
“Fascination is a necessary, but not sufficient basis for recovering directed attention”, Kaplan,
1995, 172). Does the recovery of directed attention not merely require a process/stimulus that
does not further burden directed attention capacity? And if so, could numerous other non-
fascinating stimuli/processes not offer such relief as well (e.g., visually minimalist
environments), or does soft fascination provide an exclusive and superior pathway to attention
restoration? Perhaps the theoretical necessity of soft fascination derives partly from the fact that
it is crucial for reaching full restoration (cfr., Herzog et al., 1997), where the aesthetic pleasure
This means that there is no a priori reason to discount reflection resulting from exposure to hard fascinating awe-
evoking natural scenes as a “proper” instance of nature-induced reflection.
derived from soft fascinating stimuli can offset the pain that can accompany reflection about life
issues. But then again, does this not show that especially the pleasurable aspect of soft
fascination facilitates full restoration, rather than fascination itself?
Why are fascinating stimuli relatively effortless rather than effortful?
Although ART has focused on the effortless attention component of fascination as the main
driver of attention restoration, it seems that effortless attention is – at least partly – recruited by
virtue of the fact that fascinating stimuli are often novel, complex or unpredictable (Silvia,
2008). Especially the idea of complexity as determinant of fascination clearly speaks from the
often used Perceived Restorativeness Scale (Hartig et al., 1997), where highly fascinating scenes
are assumed to be scenes where there is “a lot going on” (consider the items “My attention is
drawn to many interesting things” or “There is much to explore and discover here”). The upshot
is that while the process of attracting attention (i.e., fascination) might indeed be automatic and
relatively low on cognitive resources, processing the actual stimulus that attracts attention (i.e.,
natural setting) seems – given its complexity – also to require considerable cognitive resources
(Eng, Chen, & Jiang, 2005). Implicit to ART is the idea that the effortlessness of the process of
being attracted by fascinating stimuli, trumps the effortfulness associated with the attracting
stimulus, leading to an overall better performance on cognitive tasks after exposure to nature.
But why should that be the case? After all, in ART the distractive component of restorative
environments is considered to be moderate (cfr., “soft” fascination), and does this not suggest
that attending to such environments is not completely effortless?
While an extensive body of empirical literature has sought to confirm the notion that
exposure to nature settings can have beneficial psychological effects, with our critical review we
hope to have shown that one of the most widely adopted theories on these benefits – i.e., ART
(Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan & Berman, 2010) – has important empirical and
conceptual limitations. While numerous researchers in the field share our belief in the
importance of criticism and of theoretical expansion of ART (e.g., Ohly et al., 2016; Hartig &
Jahncke, 2017), paradoxically, we also observe that in major contemporary theoretical reviews
(Hartig et al., 2014; Collado et al., 2017) and in handbooks on environmental psychology
(Clayton, 2012; Steg, Van den Berg, & De Groot, 2012), ART is often still upheld as one of the
main canons for (attention) restoration.
To reiterate, we have three general concerns with ART: (a) some of ART’s central
theoretical notions are vague, remain conceptually underdeveloped (e.g., soft fascination), and
still await a systematic and adequate (experimental) operationalization (e.g., soft fascination), (b)
ART’s central theoretical assumptions still need to be corroborated, especially the proposed
mechanism for attention restoration (i.e., bottom-up attention), and (c) experimental studies often
do not accurately or adequately test what ART predicts. Based on this, we doubt whether – in its
current form – ART can provide an accurate theoretical description of how nature might restore
and/or improve cognition and attention in individuals.
Note that, although our discussion especially focused on the notion of fascination, we are
aware that additional components have been claimed to be important for the process of attention
restoration, such as “being away”, “extent”, and “compatibility” (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989;
Kaplan, 1995). The rationale for focusing on fascination, however, is that this notion is
considered to be the central driver of attention restoration, whereas the other components provide
(moderating) conditions under which attention restoration optimally takes place.
Despite the speculative character of the ART, and the fact that there is a current lack of
insight into how exactly nature restoration works, nature is nonetheless integrated in different
spheres of human life (e.g., ranging from clinical to school settings) where it seemingly succeeds
in bettering the lives of people and bringing out the best of them (Kaplan & Kaplan, 2003).
Might we therefore not just be satisfied with the idea that nature interventions work, laying aside
critical questions about the possible “ingredients” or mechanism(s) that underlie nature’s
efficacy? We think that theory development and critique matter, because they can help to
develop and optimize applications (cfr., “biophilic” architecture; Joye, 2007), and to identify
relevant target groups in a cost-effective way.
How to progress from here? Below we list a number of straightforward methodological
steps that could address some of the issues we have discussed in our review.
In addition to deliberately fatiguing individuals, efforts should be made to include a
control group of participants that has not undergone a fatigue manipulation, to verify
whether nature actually recovers from mental fatigue. If a deliberate fatigue induction
would prove difficult, natural variations in fatigue between individuals could also be
exploited. One could, for example, take a baseline measure of fatigue, and test whether
restorative nature effects will be most pronounced for participants that display higher
(versus lower) levels of baseline fatigue.
Standardize the method(s) for inducing attentional fatigue in participants prior to
environmental exposure, and for measuring directed attention capacity after
environmental exposure. Use the same pre- and post-measures, to enable within-subjects
Test what the particular physical input conditions of soft fascination are, and, based on
this, develop an instrument to measure soft-fascination that is able to differentiate it from
hard fascinating stimuli.
Test whether the bottom-up attentional aspects of natural fascinations mediate the effect
of natural versus urban environments on attentional functioning.
Test whether people in a soft fascinating environment think and resolve more life issues
than in hard fascinating settings.
Because urban and natural environments differ on so many (confounding) dimensions
(i.e., visual, symbolic, goal aspects) other than the factors proposed for restoration, it
might be valuable to create a controlled and validated stimulus-set of urban and natural
Create a set of non-urban and non-natural control images to identify where environmental
effects are situated, enabling one to pinpoint whether urban scenes worsen, or nature
ameliorates directed attention capacity (or both simultaneously). These control images
should be neutral on dimensions that are thought to affect attention restoration, i.e., in
terms of attentional aspects and valence (cfr., Lang, Bradley, & Cuthbert, 1995).
While it might be difficult to test whether fascination with nature is indeed an evolved
adaptive response, some ancillary assumptions of this evolutionary hypothesis might still
be put to the test. One could for example look at which natural settings are perceived as
affording safety and resources (or cues thereof), and subsequently examine whether those
settings are also more restorative than natural and urban areas seemingly devoid of these
(perceived) affordances.
While we are aware that there might be individual cases of research where the foregoing
steps have already been taken, we hope that they will be applied more systematically in
restoration research. We mainly see these suggestions as a goal for the broad literature, and
realize that individual restoration studies might well disregard some of them, depending on
particular research objectives and questions (e.g., when comparing the restorativeness of
different nature types, a “neutral” control condition may not be required).
In addition to systematically implementing the aforementioned steps, it might also prove
useful to explore alternative, more parsimonious explanations for beneficial nature effects than
ART. One promising avenue for future research might be to examine whether the motivational
component of fascination could play a role in restorative nature effects. Specifically, research
into the positive emotion of interest reveals that it is associated with approach motivation, thus
spurring exploration, focused attention, and task persistence (Silvia, 2008). Inasmuch as
fascination is a form of interest (Kaplan, 1992), superior performance on cognitive tasks after
exposure to nature (versus urban) settings might well be the result of increased task
motivation/persistence due to nature’s fascinating features. Note that such an account would be
firmly grounded in current emotion research, and avoids having to posit the existence of a
depletable cognitive resource (whose existence is currently hotly debated, e.g., Friese,
Loschelder, Gieseler, Frankenbach, & Inzlicht, 2018). At the same time, however, it builds
further on a central notion of ART, namely fascination. Of course, this illustrative proposal only
zooms in on one very particular aspect and type of restoration (i.e., “cognitive” restoration), and
we look forward to research that further maps and tests additional pathways to restoration,
possibly involving different adaptive resources (Hartig & Jahncke, 2017).
ART has been invaluable in drawing attention to the importance of natural environments
in restoring and ameliorating human wellbeing and cognitive functioning, which has paved the
way for a rich and societally-relevant empirical research literature. But should we still consider
ART itself as viable descriptive and theoretical framework for how nature can yield these
cognitive and emotional benefits? We hope that our critical review will have sparked some
scepticism in restoration researchers, and that it will stimulate renewed interest in theoretical
enrichment and development in the field of restoration research.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Maja Fischer, Jan Willem Bolderdijk and Bob Fennis for useful
comments on this paper.
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... With more and more time is invested on using mobile phone to equate the desired level of satisfaction, less time is spent on interacting with nature, thereby reducing the frequency of nature contact. This would then possibly lead to unfavorable psychological outcomes, since as stated by the attention restoration theory (ART), one of the most influential and widely researched theories in environmental psychology to explain the psychological effects of nature contact (Joye & Dewitte, 2018;Thatcher, Adamson, Bloch, & Kalantzis, 2020), nature plays a critical role in human life (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Particularly, ART posits that nature has four characteristic components: being away (distancing oneself from the routine environment), fascination (holding attention in an effortlessly way), extent (being rich in content and clear in structure) and compatibility (existing a resonance between natural settings and human activities; Herzog, Maguire, & Nebel, 2003;Kaplan, 1995). ...
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Mobile phone overuse has become an increasingly emergent public health issue globally on which much research has been conducted. Despite this, little research has investigated this topic in relation to the human-nature interaction. In order to address this gap, two studies were designed to investigate the association between mobile phone overuse and nature-deficit disorder as well as the role of nature-deficit disorder in the relations between mobile phone overuse and well-being and mindfulness. Results obtained from self-report measures revealed that mobile phone overuse was related to less nature contact. In addition, mobile phone overuse was linked with lower subjective well-being, psychological well-being and mindfulness by virtue of lower frequency of nature contact. The current research advances our understanding of people-environment relations. Furthermore, on the basis of the human-nature interaction, it suggests a relatively low-cost way to weaken the negative association between mobile phone overuse and its psychological outcomes, and thus highlights the value of introducing nature contact into the research on mobile phone overuse.
... However, in the last decade, these explanations have been brought into question (Haga, Halin, Holmgren, & Sörqvist, 2016). Works by Joye and collaborators (Joye & de Block, 2011;Joye & Dewitte, 2018;Joye & van den Berg, 2011) have highlighted concerns regarding, for example, the specific features that theoretically bring about restoration and the general restorative experiences in various green settings that appear to be lacking in the reports found in the literature. For instance, restoration theories posited that restoration would occur in the presence of environmental features related to the evolution of the species (e.g. ...
Urban beaches and parks are providers of numerous ecosystem services. In the cultural sphere, place bonding and psychological restoration might significantly contribute to the health and well-being of citizens. In this manuscript, we present a study aimed to evaluate the extent to which three urban beaches and three urban parks offered these advantages to a sample of users (n = 429) in the city of Donostia-San Sebastián (Spain). A second aim was to build a predictive model of restoration through both objective and subjective measures. We assessed the design and physical features of the settings using the Natural Environment Scoring Tool (NEST) and gathered a range of information about the users via a paper & pencil questionnaire. The survey included socio-demographics, questions regarding the frequency and patterns of use, and four different psycho-environmental scales: Perceived Restorativeness Scale (PRS), Place Attachment and Identification Scale, and Restoration Outcome Scales (ROS). We found differences regarding the profile of users and the activities carried out in each of the settings. Users of beaches reported higher levels of attachment, identification, and experienced restoration than the participants surveyed in urban parks (p < .001). Regression analyses revealed that the main predictors of experienced restoration where perceived restorativeness (β = 0.49), attachment (β = 0.22), and identification (β = 0.15), whereas the physical/design features of the environment and the routines of use made a negligible contribution in this regard. The results of the regression analyses were extended by conducting dominance and relative weight analyses.
... Main theories and approaches to restoration understand that it is an evolutionary-based response to certain environmental features, although such positions have been recently questioned (Joye & Dewitte, 2018;Joye & van den Berg, 2011;Menatti, Subiza-Pérez, Villalpando-Flores, Vozmediano, & San Juan, 2019). One of the evident shortcomings of evolutionary-based explanations is the neglect of possible personal which might be also involved in the process (Felsten, 2014;Ratcliffe & Korpela, 2016;Subiza-Pérez, Vozmediano, & San Juan, 2019;Weber & Trojan, 2018). ...
Psychological restoration is a widely study topic in environmental health, environmental psychology and urban studies literatures. Most of the attention has been directed towards the benefits of the contact with natural/green spaces. On the contrary, the study of the restorative properties of built settings, even though it has experienced a relative increase in recent years, remains greatly understudied. In this work, we assessed the objective design features of a sample of 6 urban squares and conducted a survey study to measure the patterns of use of such settings and restorative experiences of their users. Regression analyses revealed that both objective variables and the patterns of use were scarcely associated to the experience of restoration whereas psychological variables such as the perception of the restorative qualities of the squares and the psychological bonding to them remained strongly associated even in the presence of the rest of the variables included in the study. The implications of th study for this line of research and for urban planning initiatives are discussed.
... Complementary limitations have been pointed out in the field of psychological restoration as well. Works by Joye and collaborators have consistently argued that many settings have empirically showed restorative effects but lack features related to survival, such as food or shelter (Joye & de Block, 2011;Joye & Dewitte, 2018;Joye & van den Berg, 2011). Evolutionary-based theories of restoration would fail here at explaining the restorative effects of current urban parks, indoor plants or green roofs because these places do not appear to offer the expected survival advantages. ...
This study explores the roles of place attachment and place identification in the evaluation of the restorative potential of landscapes. Two hundred university students recruited at campuses in the Basque Country (Spain) and Chile evaluated the restorative value of a set of landscape photographs including local and non-local locations. The results indicated that local natural landscapes were preferred and assessed as more restorative as compared to non-local ones, and that place attachment and identification positively predicted their restoration ratings. Conversely, urban local landscapes were less preferred and seen as less restorative than their non-local counterparts. In this latter case, attachment remained a positive predictor whereas identification was found to negatively contribute to the restorative potential of local urban landscapes. In line with recent research, we found that person-place bonding affects landscape preferences and the perception of its restorative properties. This study contributes to an emerging line of research that addresses the role of a wider set of personal, social and cultural variables in the psychological restoration process.
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In this article we review the emerging literature on the self-transcendent emotions. We discuss how the self-transcendent emotions differ from other positive emotions and outline the defining features of this category. We then provide an analysis of three specific self-transcendent emotions—compassion, gratitude, and awe—detailing what has been learned about their expressive behavior, physiology, and likely evolutionary origins. We propose that these emotions emerged to help humans solve unique problems related to caretaking, cooperation, and group coordination in social interactions. In our final section we offer predictions about the self-transcendent emotions that can guide future research.
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Virtual reality (VR) distraction has become increasingly available in health care contexts and is used in acute pain management. However, there has been no systematic exploration of the importance of the content of VR environments. Two studies tested how interacting with nature VR influenced experienced and recollected pain after 1 week. Study 1 (n = 85) used a laboratory pain task (cold pressor), whereas Study 2 (n = 70) was a randomized controlled trial with patients undergoing dental treatment. In Study 1, nature (coastal) VR reduced both experienced and recollected pain compared with no VR. In Study 2, nature (coastal) VR reduced experienced and recalled pain in dental patients, compared with urban VR and standard care. Together, these data show that nature can improve experience of health care procedures through the use of VR, and that the content of the VR matters: Coastal nature is better than urban.
This handbook is the first to comprehensively study the interdependent fields of environmental and conservation psychology. In doing so, it seeks to map the rapidly growing field of conservation psychology and its relationship to environmental psychology. The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology includes basic research on environmental perceptions, attitudes, and values; research on specific environments, such as therapeutic settings, schools, and prisons; environmental impacts on human well-being; and ways to promote a more sustainable relationship between people and the natural environment. This handbook presents an extensive review of current research and is a thorough guide to the state of knowledge about a wide range of topics at the intersection of psychology and the physical environment. Beyond this, it provides a better understanding of the relationship between environmental and conservation psychology, and some sense of the directions in which these interdependent areas of study are heading.
This chapter provides an overview of theories on restorative effects of natural environments, along with a discussion of empirical findings and practical implications. Research into restorative environments has primarily been guided by two theoretical explanations: stress recovery theory and attention restoration theory. The chapter discusses three recent theoretical and empirical approaches that have focused on further unravelling the conditions and mechanisms underlying restorative environment experience. The approaches are perceptual fluency account, connectedness to nature, and micro‐restorative experiences. Findings from restorative environments research are increasingly being used to guide the design and management of natural and built environments. This is one of the reasons why restorative elements have become an essential part of so‐called evidence‐based design (EBD) of healthcare settings. The empirical evidence for restorative effects of nature is increasingly applied in healthcare and in urban and landscape planning.
Soft fascination is a key but underexamined element of Attention Restoration Theory (ART). According to ART, attending to softly fascinating stimuli not only requires little effort but also leaves mental space for reflection. We propose that soft fascination can be characterized as the interaction of both attentional effort and mental bandwidth and hypothesize that the restorative potential of everyday activities can be categorized based on this interaction. In an online survey, 398 adults rated four activities on Mental Bandwidth (MB), Perceived Restorativeness (PR), and preference. Supporting the hypothesis, the results showed that walking in nature was perceived as softly fascinating, whereas watching television was a source of hard fascination. Furthermore, PR, but not MB, was highly correlated with preference. Findings are discussed in the context of developing a measure to help people better anticipate activities that may or may not be restorative.
Increasing and new work demands drain employees’ energy resources at work. This four-week longitudinal field experiment investigated the energizing potential of a respite intervention conducted at the workplace (either a simulated savoring nature intervention or a progressive muscle relaxation intervention). First, growth modeling analyses confirmed a linear trend for the growth of vigor and decline in fatigue across the days of the intervention group, indicating a typical upward resource trajectory. No changes appeared in the control group. Mediation analyses indicated that repeatedly engaging in a daily respite intervention influenced more stable energy levels after the intervention period indirectly through the immediate changes in daily energy levels during the intervention period. Findings suggest that, in some cases, respite interventions may present a useful tool to replenish and build energy resources at work. Implications for using respite intervention in organizational research and practice are discussed.
Exposure to nature has been shown to restore cognitive capacities and activate intrinsic motivational states. The present research considered the role of salient identities in determining these effects. Three studies demonstrated that salient identities modify how people respond to natural environments. Exposure to images of natural environments increased the strength of intrinsic over extrinsic aspirations, and improved cognitive capacity, only when nature was central to a salient identity (Studies 1 & 2), or when the specific nature portrayed was connected to the salient identity (Study 3). Conversely, when nature was inconsistent with a salient identity, exposure had deleterious effects on aspiration and cognition. Together these studies suggest that the restorative potential of environments is determined, at least in part, by social and psychological processes connected to identity. These findings invite a more nuanced approach to understanding the possible psychological benefits of exposure to nature, and suggest that a variety of environments (natural and urban) can have restorative potential.
The present paper addresses the question which visual features trigger people’s often more positive affective responses to natural compared to built scenes. Building on notions about visual complexity and fractal geometry, we propose that perceived complexity of magnified scene parts can predict the greater fascinating and restorative qualities of natural versus built scenes. This prediction was tested in an experiment in which 40 participants viewed and rated 40 images of unspectacular natural and built scenes in their original size, and at 400% and 1600% magnification levels. Results showed that the original, unmagnified natural scenes were viewed longer and rated more restorative than built scenes, and that these differences were statistically mediated by the greater perceived complexity of magnified parts of natural scenes. These findings fit with the idea that fractal-like, recursive complexity is an important visual cue underlying the restorative potential of natural and built environments.