Touch nature

I touched a rhinoceros yesterday; it was pretty awesome.

A real, live rhinoceros. His name is Shaka.

Shaka (1).jpg
Me and Shaka are basically best friends now. Image my own.

He was big, warm, rough, and surprisingly docile. He seemed gentle and easygoing, but I was also warned that it’s basically impossible to stop a rhino from doing what it wants to do.

I also met Shaka’s daughter Nomvula and his baby mama Meru and now I’m in love with rhinoceroses.

Baby rhino and mom.jpg
I love rhinos. Rhinos love hay. Does that mean I love hay now? Image my own

I had the privilege of getting up close and personal with a rhino yesterday because I have a friend who works at Knowsley Safari, near Liverpool. My friend introduced me to the rhinos’ keeper, Jason, who spent half an hour with us, telling us all about rhino physiology, rhino breeding programs, rhino behaviour, and about the personalities of the Knowsley rhinos.

I learned that the name White Rhino is probably a mishearing of the dutch wijd, referring to their wide mouths (although some parts of the internet disagree). I learned that the horns were probably once used to dig up tubers and aren’t usually used in fights. I learned that it takes five years before a rhino trusts you enough to tolerate you.

It was all supremely interesting, but the thing that stuck with me most and the thing I want to write about is the feeling of touching a wild animal.

Connecting with nature

Actually meeting a rhino connected me to them in a new way. I had read about poaching issues, about the price of rhino horn, about conservation programs. But it all seemed so remote. I cared, but I didn’t really care.

This sense of connection after exposure has been shown with nature more generally: the more time you spend in natural environments, the more likely you are to care about nature and the more likely you are to do things that help it.

Most people tend to appreciate nature already, but there are plenty of selfish reasons to take yourself outside more often. Connection with nature is associated with decreased rates of depression, increased intelligence and faster recovery rates in hospital. People who live close to green space are healthier – physically and mentally.

Because of this, some researchers argue that encouraging people to protect the environment would be a solid public health policy.

Social Psychology

So, now knowing all these facts about the benefit of nature, why did it take actually touching a rhino for me to feel connected with nature? There are probably lots of reasons, but I think there are two interesting answers from social psychology: the mere exposure effect and lessons from prejudice research.

The mere exposure effect is a well-studied phenomenon in psychology. People tend to like what they spend time around. It’s why Justin Bieber gets better the more you listen to him. We like familiarity. In a famous 1968 paper that established the effect, Robert Zajonc presented the results of several experiments. This included one where people preferred nonsense words that they repeat more than ones they only say once.

The intuitive truth of this effect is borne out in the advertising industry. While there are other bits of psychology at play in any given ad, ultimately the more you see a brand, the more you will like it. In the same way, I think the more people are exposed to nature, the more they appreciate it.

But this doesn’t explain why just one amazing encounter with a rhino could have such a deep impact on me, for that we need to take a look at research into intergroup relations.

When two groups hate each other, the way to overcome prejudice is to make meaningful contact between the two groups. This is well-established, but a recent meta-analysis of over 500 papers on the topic looked at why contact reduces tension. The three theories were because it brought increased knowledge of the other group, because it reduced anxiety about the other group, and because it allowed people to have empathy with the other group.

While all three were shown to be valid reasons why contact combats prejudice, the second two had the strongest effects. This makes sense in the rhino context. I could learn all the facts about rhinos, but until I got close to one, I wasn’t sure if they would hurt me and I couldn’t empathize with them. I didn’t care about them.

It’s hard to hurt something you care about.

So get outside and hug a tree more often. If you touch nature, you’ll be healthier, happier, and more likely to do it again. Virtuous circles for the win.

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