How powerful is positive reinforcement? For humans, it’s undoubtedly vital in terms of helping us grow and succeed from a young age.
But what about for plants? Ikea and agency Memac Ogilvy Dubai wanted to prove that even a potted plant could suffer from the effects of bullying, so they brought a demonstration to a local school, GEMS Wellington Academy in Dubai.
In the school, one plant from Ikea was played recordings of negative, hurtful comments, such as, “You’re not even green,” and, “You look rotten.” The other plant listened to recordings of positive comments like, “Seeing you blossom makes me happy.”
Here’s what happened over the next 30 days, according to the case study video:
If you’re skeptical about the rather extreme difference between the two plants at the end of the experiment, you’re not alone.
“There is no way this is sound science,” notes one YouTube commenter. “I want this repeated with more plants. This is a hoax.”
According to Ikea’s press release about the project, it was a legitimate experiment:
“The live experiment involved Ikea taking two of its very own plants and installing them at the school. Both plants were treated strictly the same,” the brand’s release says. “The only difference being one plant heard compliments and words of encouragement, while the other was verbally bullied with hateful words, for one month.”
The retailer’s regional leadership says it hopes to extend the project into other schools:
“It has helped children and their families understand the impact that words can have,” says Vinod Jayan, managing director of Ikea UAE. “It was so successful in driving awareness and reducing bullying amongst these children that more schools in the UAE have approached us to conduct the experiment at their locations.”
Most research out there, however, would tend to agree with the doubters. While there seems to be consensus that plants respond better when talked to, there’s not much evidence that plants really care what you say.
Even MythBusters tested the theory, finding that a silent greenhouse performed worse than those with recorded messages, but that there wasn’t a difference between those with positive or negative messages.
We asked the agency to confirm that the plants truly did receive the same amount of light, water and nourishment, and we’ll update the story if we hear back.
UPDATE: We heard back from a creative at Ogilvy Dubai who reaffirmed that it was a legitimate project with both plants being treated the same except for the verbal messages. She says the agency is getting “a lot of questions” about the project and admits she was “quite impressed when I saw the results.”