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Research into the perceived restorativeness of environments tends to focus on the Kaplans' Attention Restoration Theory at the expense of the affective considerations of Ulrich's psychoevolutionary model. To better understand the role of emotion, this study used contextual text-based primers (newspaper articles) to manipulate participants' affective state (positive or negative) prior to them rating different environments using the Restorative Components Scale. Sixty-nine participants completed the web-based study, being pseudo-randomly allocated to the positive- or negative-prime condition before rating three natural and three urban environments. Natural environments were rated as more restorative than urban, with negative-priming giving higher mean ratings for all environments. This effect was overall statistically significant for two components (Being Away and Fascination), but only Fascination showed a significant interaction of affective-prime and environment, a larger effect being seen for natural environments. Results are discussed in terms of current understanding of the interrelationship between attentional and affective processes.
When determining what makes an environment psychologically restorative, emphasis has been on the features of the environment (type of vegetation, presence of water, artificial structures, etc.) and what they might provide to the perceiver. Much of the research uses rating-scale measures (e.g., Herzog, Black, Fountaine, & Knotts, 1997; Herzog, Maguire, & Nebel, 2003) based on the four components of Attention Restoration Theory (ART; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989): Being Away is “psychological distance” from routine mental tasks and everyday demands; Extent refers to an environment of significant scope, having coherent features; Fascination is an involuntary, effortless attention to the environment; Compatibility refers to the appropriateness of the environments for the desired activity. While the components can relate to more diverse concerns—e.g., compatibility relates to the perceiver's desires—the focus is generally on the perceiver's attentional needs. Non-attentional needs are simply side effects of attentional fatigue: Kaplan (1995, p. 172) describes irritability as the “hallmark of a person who cannot draw on directed attention”.
This attentional emphasis may be partly due to successful empirical work supporting ART (e.g., Staats, Kieviet, & Hartig, 2003; Berto, 2005) but also due to the practical application of the theory, e.g., workplace planning (Kaplan, 1993) or green-space provision (Coley, Kuo, & Sullivan, 1997). Much of the research into perceived restorativeness (PR) therefore makes the baseline assumption that “restoration is favoured more by attentionally fatigued people than by people who are not” (Staats et al., 2003, p. 148). Studies mostly focus on people who have been made attentionally fatigued through direct manipulation (e.g., Berto, 2005) or who are asked to imagine themselves being in such a state (e.g., Staats et al., 2003). Such studies show that environments with components hypothesised to be restorative are in fact perceived as being more restorative, with natural environments usually being rated higher than urban ones. However, the nature/urban split is not always clear. For example, Karmanov and Hamel (2008) suggest that urban environments which include landmarks, natural elements and interesting layouts can also be restorative, although this was only true based on “anger” and “tension” ratings; depression was improved solely by exposure to natural environments. Yet such variation in results does suggest that factors other than attentional needs are involved.
In contrast, Ulrich's psychoevolutionary model (Ulrich et al., 1991) gives primacy to our initial— perhaps innate (Balling & Falk, 1982)—affective response to an environment: visual features elicit positive-affect responses which influence subsequent cognition (including attentional functions). In an attempt to integrate the two models and unite the attentional and affective components, Kaplan (1995) proposed a framework suggesting that an individual having insufficient psychological resources will develop both attentional fatigue and a general stress response, the latter being associated with an affective state. However, he goes on to suggest that the key psychological resource required to cope with any given situation is in fact directed attention, again bringing the focus back to attentional needs.
Returning to Ulrich's model, it is interesting to note his qualifying statement that the positive affect relates to unthreatening nature. This suggests a parallel with the ART components in that there will be some individual variation: what constitutes a threat will differ depending on the perceiver's past experiences, and to be perceived as restorative, an environment might also have to meet non-attentional needs relating to affective perceptions. This idea has been addressed in part by research looking at the restorative aspects of favourite places. For example, Korpela, Hartig, Kaiser, and Fuhrer (2001) looked at feelings associated with different places, finding that all of the ART component ratings were significantly different for favourite versus unpleasant places. On the other hand, Herzog et al. (2003) found that the ART components relating to the perceived restorative potential of a place were different from those associated with preference for a place.
Although the findings differ, both studies do make an assumption that is common to ART-based studies: whether affective or attentional, any needs will be met only by the properties of the environment; the perceiver's affective state independent of that environment is not considered. While it is generally recognised that PR might indeed depend on “differences in antecedent mental state” (Staats et al., 2003, p. 155), this is not applied to prior affective state. One way of looking at this experimentally is via an affective priming paradigm wherein the presentation of an evaluated affective target-stimulus is preceded by a different affect primer-stimulus. This procedure was used by Korpela, Klemettilä, and Hietanen (2002) to show that environment images primed subsequent forced-choice affective judgements (a nature/positive, urban/negative affect bias), but has not been used to show an effect of an a priori affective state on PR.
In the present study, I manipulated participants' affective state prior to them rating the PR of different environments. To ensure that the affect manipulation was contextual and ecologically valid, two recent newspaper articles relating to current environmental issues were selected, one with overall negative affective tone and the other a positive tone. I predicted that prior affective state would modify subsequent affective reactions to environment images: besides the expected higher PR for natural versus urban images, there would be a differential in PR that was greater for the negative-priming. This differential prediction was two-tailed, as it was unclear whether the negative-affect state would make people see natural environments as becoming more (an “escape”) or less appealing (a “loss”). Given that previous research has shown often contradictory overlaps between PR and place attachment, exploratory questions relating to feelings of Connectedness to Nature (CNS; Mayer & Frantz, 2004) and childhood environment were added, to see if they influenced any affective interactions.
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The present research aimed to move away from an attentional focus by looking for possible effects on PR of the perceiver's affective state prior to their experience of the environment. The affect-manipulation check showed that the newspaper articles had their intended effect, the positive article being associated with slightly increased feelings of empowerment and the negative article with a marked decrease. There was an overall affect-priming effect where negative-primed participants tended to give higher and more variable PR ratings of any environment: MNEGATIVE = 5.13 (SD = 1.08) versus MPOSITIVE = 4.86 (SD = 0.83).
In agreement with previous studies, natural environments were perceived as being more restorative than urban ones, though it is worth noting that even urban environments had a mean PR rating close to the midpoint of the scale. However, the interaction of affective-priming with environment did not quite reach statistical significance, despite large effect sizes. Analysis of the RCS subscales indicated that this was due to any effect of priming occurring only with two of the ART components: Being Away and Fascination. Furthermore, the interaction of affect and environment only significantly influenced the restorativeness rating for the Fascination component.
Fascination is key in ART, providing respite from the use of easily fatigued directed attention. Yet, Herzog et al. (2003) found that Fascination was the only factor not significantly different for natural versus urban environments, even though the former had significantly higher PR ratings. Korpela et al. (2001) found that Fascination was the least reliably associated with participant's chosen favourite place, despite that environment being associated with higher positive affect. Here, Fascination was the only factor which did show a significant interaction between affect and environment yet it is hard to argue that participants became attentionally fatigued from the negative-prime but not from the positive-prime. Additionally, the CNS (measuring “emotional connection” to the environment) and PR were positively correlated for natural environments but negatively correlated for urban environments. These results suggest that affect is not a consequence of attentional fatigue (cf. Kaplan, 1995) but something that needs separate consideration.
Perhaps Fascination complements other factors which aid attentional restoration, possibly providing “an aesthetic buffer against painful thoughts” (Herzog et al., 1997). People might think about Fascination differently depending on the specific environment (e.g., relating it more to available activities than to the environment itself: Laumann et al., 2001). Alternatively, there may be closer ties between affect and attention than is often realised. Attentional processes may be key to understanding an environment's restorativeness but affective processes need not be subsidiary: emotion can both initiate and be guided by attention. With an increased emphasis on affect−attention interactions, and perhaps by considering automatic versus attended emotion as the complements of involuntary versus directed attention, future research may better model the complexities of the restorative environment. The idea that negative affect can promote PR also indicates how the outcome of real-world application might differ from laboratory studies.
As with many such studies, one limitation was that images were chosen for their obviousness of being “natural” or “urban”, but were not judged on other factors that they might potentially share (e.g., one reviewer suggested factors such as “safety” and “mystery”). Yet even if the nature/urban split were instead shown to be based on such factors, results would still mean that prior affective state influences the widely used PR measures as well as affecting those other factors. Whether conducting laboratory studies or attempting to communicate environmental ideas in the real-world, our emotional responses about an environment need to be considered as well as its physical features.