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Virtual zoo helps create optimum environment for recovering from stress

04 January 2012

Stress is bad for our physical and spiritual wellbeing. With the help of virtual reality, psychologist Roos Pals investigated the best way for people to recover from stress. The coherence of your surroundings turned out to be very important. Pals will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 9 January 2012.

Pals’s research was commissioned by Emmen Zoo. With plans for new construction work, the Zoo wants to gather as much knowledge as possible about the best approach and designs. Pals: ‘Your surroundings turn out to have a great influence on your wellbeing. That was why I took an environmental psychology approach to investigating which aspects ensure that people feel comfortable somewhere.’ Earlier research revealed that people are better able to recover from fatigue in a natural environment than in urban surroundings. In addition, people find nature more attractive. Based on this data, Pals extended her research into a virtual world.

Virtual butterfly garden


Parts of the (future) zoo were copied in virtual reality, for example a butterfly garden and a walk past the elephants and ring-tailed lemurs. Pals: ‘When you have a very controlled environment, you can change things very systematically. In a real environment you have much less control over circumstances. It’s also very expensive to change all the benches, for example, just to see what influence this has on visitors. In such instances virtual reality is an ideal tool.’

Research in virtual realities produces comparable results to research in real surroundings. ‘People who took a walk through the virtual butterfly garden recovered significantly better from stress than people who walked through a virtual urban neighbourhood. That’s the same as in real surroundings. This is a very valuable discovery’, according to Pals – both for researchers and for designers. ‘If you introduce a certain object to a virtual environment you can test what people experience, before you move on to construction.’

Influence of objects


‘A natural environment has a kind of natural harmony to it’, says Pals. ‘I wanted to find out how objects such as benches and fences would affect the coherence and thus people’s experience.’ Previous research had shown that there is a connection between perceived attractiveness, experienced joy and environmental characteristics (fascination, novelty, escape, coherence and compatibility).

Pals tested three types of objects along the virtual walk: benches, fences and waste bins. In addition, two specific types of benches were tested: an austerely designed modern bench and a more ‘natural’ one. Both benches had gained similar scores for attractiveness in a preliminary assessment. However, in the park the modern benches clashed with their surroundings, which turned out to have a negative influence on the perceived coherence of the environment. ‘And that in turn affected the perceived attractiveness of the environment, the joy experienced and the degree to which people were able to recover from stress there’, says Pals.

Practical applicability


Pals’s findings are of great importance to the designers of the Zoo as well. ‘They confirm a lot of the ideas that they already had. A bench must of course be maintenance-friendly, but it should also fit in with the surroundings. People who visit a park or a museum often get extremely tired after a while. The more coherence an environment offers, the better people can relax. Everything that is placed in such an environment must therefore fit in with the surroundings and not destroy its harmony.’

Curriculum Vitae


Roos Pals (Utrecht, 1981) studied psychology at the University of Groningen and conducted her PhD research, which was commissioned and funded by Emmen Zoo, at the Department of Social Psychology, GMZ of the same university. She will be awarded a PhD in Behavioural and Social Sciences. Her supervisors are Prof. E.M. Steg, K.I. van Oudenhoven-van der Zee and Dr F.W. Siero, and her thesis is entitled 'Zoo-ming in on restoration: physical features and restorativeness of environments'. Pals currently works as a researcher at the University of Groningen and as a lecturer in applied psychology at Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen.

Note for the press


Contact: Roos Pals, tel. 06-48080561, e-mail: r.pals@rug.nl

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.29 p.m.
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