A woman peers through goggles embedded in a large black helmet. Forest sounds emanate from various corners of the room: a bird chirping here, a breeze whispering there. She moves slowly around the room. On the wall, a flat digital forest is projected so observers can get a rough idea of her surroundings, but in her mind’s eye, this undergrad is no longer pacing a small, cramped room in a university lab. Thanks to that black helmet, she's walking through the woods.
In a minute, she's handed a joystick that looks and vibrates like a chainsaw, and she's asked to cut down a tree. As she completes the task, she feels the same sort of resistance she might feel if she were cutting down a real tree. When she leaves this forest, and re-enters the "real" world, her paper consumption will drop by 20 percent and she will show a measurable preference for recycled paper products. Those effects will continue into the next few weeks and researchers hypothesize it will be a fairly permanent shift. By comparison, students who watch a video about deforestation or read an article on the subject will show heightened awareness of paper waste through that day—but they will return to their baseline behavior by the end of the week.
The tree-cutting study is one of many that Stanford University has conducted in its Virtual Human Interaction Lab over the last several years in an attempt to figure out the extent to which a simulated experience can affect behavior. And it’s part of a growing body of research that suggests virtual experiences may offer a powerful catalyst for otherwise apathetic groups to begin caring about issues and taking action, including on climate change. That's important because while time spent in nature has been proven to be quite beneficial to human health, whether or not humans repay the favor tends to rely on the type of nature experiences they have in their youth. In a 2009 study published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers from the University of Pretoria in South Africa found that while people who spent time hiking and backpacking were more willing to support conservation efforts a decade or more later, those who had visited national parks or spent time fishing as kids were actually less inclined to do anything to support the environment. An earlier (2006) study on the relationship between nature experiences and environmentalism found that while those who had spent their youth in "wild" nature, defined as hiking or playing in the woods, were more likely to be environmentalists as adults, those who had been exposed to "domesticated" nature—defined as visits to parks, picking flowers, planting seeds, or tending to gardens—were not. Given the unlikelihood of every child having a "wild" nature experience, researchers are on the hunt for other ways to cultivate environmentally responsible behavior.