It has long been suspected that plants have feelings, just like people do. But Swedish homeware behemoth IKEA decided to take that theory one step further in support of World Anti Bullying Day on May 4, 2019, with an interactive social experiment. They conducted their experiment in schools throughout the United Arab Emirates.
— The Independent (@Independent) May 8, 2018
IKEA installed two house plants in the schools’ communal areas and then asked pupils to talk to them. All environmental criteria was the same; the plants were watered exactly the same amount and had equal exposure to sunlight. However, while one plant was gifted with generous compliments, the other was harshly insulted.
School pupils were invited to record additional audio messages which were then played back to the plants on a loop for 30 days. The aim? To prove just how damaging prolonged bullying can be for the well-being of a living creature. And the best thing about this experiment? It kind of, well … it worked!
— IFLScience (@IFLScience) May 11, 2018
IKEA posted a video synopsis of “Bully a Plant” on YouTube, describing the widespread experiment as “a live experiment to highlight the negative effects of verbal bullying.” Some of the comments are golden; compliments included, “Seeing you blossom makes me happy,” and “You are beautiful!”
But the pupils didn’t hold back on their weird, wacky, and downright creative insults. “You’re a mistake,” said one. “You’re useless!” criticized another. “You look rotten, are you really even alive?” sneered one of the worst.
And then something strange happened. “As the weeks passed,” one participating pupil commented, “I started noticing that the one that was being bullied started to droop.” Another pupil had a complementary (see what we did there?) observation: “The plant that was being complimented,” he said, “it was flourishing and beautiful.”
Britny Goulet, teacher and head of house at GEMS Wellington Academy in Silicon Oasis, Dubai, said: “I think it’s an excellent project. To have something tangible that they can actually, physically be a part of is, I think, going to be very powerful.”
According to The Sun, teachers are not the only professionals to have voiced their support for this extraordinary experiment. “Plants may not have eyes, ears or a tongue,” Alana Schetzer of the University of Melbourne contributed, “but their skin can perform many of the same functions. [They] can respond accordingly.”
And Michael Schöner, a biologist at the University of Greifswald, told Scientific American that plants can effectively “hear,” as “sound vibrations could trigger a response of the plant via mechanoreceptor.”
So could IKEA’s house plants really internalize and respond to the pupils’ bolstering compliments and harsh critiques? The 30-day experiment certainly seemed to suggest so. Far from seeming abstract, using plants instead of people was actually extremely effective; kids got the message. “If it can affect a plant,” shared one sharp student, “it can definitely affect other people.”
IKEA’s takeaway message was loud, clear, and written on the leaves of subdued house plants across the United Arab Emirates: “Spreading kindness helps us all to grow and thrive,” they said.