We measured two different thinking preferences. First, the KAI (shortened from the Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation Inventory) distinguishes two kinds of thinking style. Some of us are good at working efficiently and can apply learned rules fast, without much effort. This type of thinking is called an adaption thinking style but is not very innovative. The opposing end of this thinking style, on the other hand, is innovation focused: it emphasizes thinking outside the box, doing things differently and creating new solutions to problems. The second thinking style AHT (abbreviated from Analytic-Holistic Thinking) differentiates holistic from analytic thinking styles. When people are solving a problem, holistic thinkers consider the whole problem within an overall system. They think in terms of the big picture, considering how all parts of a problem are related and how a single issue connects to all the others. In contrast, analytical thinkers break problems down into smaller components and work through them carefully. They consider the details and work on them, but pay less attention to the overall puzzle and to how the various components interrelate. Both types of thinking – analytic and holistic – can be useful: while it is sometimes better to go through problems piece by piece, at other times it seems more appropriate to consider how everything fits together and to address issues with a helicopter view.
When we linked these two instruments to a feeling of connectedness to nature, we found that connectedness with nature is positively related to both innovative and holistic cognitive styles. Singaporean students who are more connected to nature prefer both innovative and holistic thinking. This means that the more people feel connected to nature, they are more likely to be better at coming up with novel solutions (thinking outside the box) and also consider the bigger picture when solving problems. This is a novel finding that shows how people who feel a stronger connection to nature are also more innovative and see the bigger picture.
The underlying mechanism that drives these correlations is not clear yet. Carmen's reason for proposing these relationships was linked to people’s inclination to develop close relationships with others as well as with the natural environment. While people in general have a strong motivation to connect with fellow human beings, some are more strongly motivated to do so than others. Those who feel strongly connected to others may broaden their own perspectives: they consider how other people think and feel and see problems from other points of view. This is a crucial element of innovative thinking styles – seeing problems from somebody else’s perspective. It may be possible that people can show this sense of connection in relation not only to other people but also to nature. Edward Wilson has written about this motivation at length in his Biophilia hypothesis (see here for a review for a review of his great autobiography, here is a summary of research on biophilia). We applied the idea and hypothesized that it could also help us to understand differences in thinking styles. We also believe that the way we think with a helicopter view is very similar to the way things work in nature. Holistic thinkers, for instance, place emphasis on the interconnectedness of ideas within a system; and our understanding of nature teaches us that everything in it (life cycles, ecosystems, etc.) is interrelated. Those who feel a greater connection with nature will also think in terms of the big picture. Our study is an important first step in this direction, however, we need more systematic work that explores the underlying mechanisms directly.
The study was based on a single time point in two separate samples, so we cannot draw any causal links from it. Yet, the pattern suggests that getting out into nature and appreciating nature's diversity and beauty may do you lots of good, not just improving your health and reducing stress, but also helping you to become more innovative and a big picture thinker.
Get off your chair and go for a walk now :D
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