17 December 2012

Power of Physical Environment – How Design and Characteristics of the Environment Influence Behavior

As I mentioned in the description of the 4D Behavior model the Environment influences significantly human behavior. In this post, I would like to address the role of the Physical Environment in determining behavior.

Let me start with an example. If you have ever went to an Ikea store you were heavily influenced by how the shop is arranged. Much of your behavior in an Ikea store is determined by the designer of the shop and not by your own will. Take a look at the picture below:


The store is designed in such a way that you will not miss any section of it and you will be exposed to most of Ikea’s products.

However, this is not entire goal of the design. Yes, you are much more likely to buy something if you see it as compared to not seeing it. Yes, you will find for sure a certain piece of furniture (if you can call Ikea stuff furniture) that you are looking for in a shop in which you don’t miss anything. But the design of the Ikea shop will do something more than just expose you to all pieces of furniture they have for sale. It will exhaust you. If to the complex journey in an Ikea store you add the congestion and hundreds of screaming children typical for a week-end day, your brain will be under assault. After you finish the “tour” on the upper floor, you will end up in the “accessories” hall downstairs.

Here you will find a lot a nice, cute stuff that is not particularly expensive in absolute value, although I believe that these are in fact the products with the highest margin. After your trip through the top floor maze invaded by screaming children, you are “ego-depleted and most likely you will make purchases out of impulse without giving too much thought. The result will be that you’ll get home with at least a bag full of stuff that is extremely cute but more or less useless.   

But, before getting home, there is a considerable chance that you will stop at the “fashionable” Ikea restaurant (if you can call it a restaurant) and get something to eat since you are tired, hungry and you have to drive home for at least 20 minutes.

This is only one example on how the physical environment strongly influences our behavior. Shop design is in itself almost a science. All (modern) stores are designed so that people who enter them will have a “lighter” wallet when they leave them. At the same time the physical environment influences behavior in many other contexts apart from shopping. Let me give you some more examples.

In the years when I was organizing trainings and conferences I have noticed a big difference in the level of interaction both among participants and with the lecturer depending on how the room was arranged.   

When the room was arranged as a “theater” or as a “classroom” (see pictures below) the level of interactivity was extremely low.

Theater arrangement:

Classroom arrangement:

When the room was arranged in a “U-shape”, however, the interaction boosted and reached levels so high that sometimes I (as a lecturer) found it hard to keep under control.

U-shape arrangement:

I don’t have a full proof scientific explanation for this effect, but I can make some assumptions. In a classroom or theater arrangement people do not see each-other face-to-face. The back of the head and the side of the face are all that one sees when a room is arranged in these manners. At the same time, when a room is arranged in a “U-shape” a lot of people can make eye contact.  Now, several things may happen: First, people can communicate non-verbally (face and body expression) and this may lead to more (verbal) interaction; Second, people are seen by others and may feel social pressure to engage in discussions; Third, the level of anonymity is severely diminished. Whereas in a theater or classroom arrangement one can “hide” in the crowd and stay anonymous, in a U-shape arrangement there can be very little anonymity.

My best guess is that all these three effect co-occur and interact. What is most important is that the way in which people behave in a conference room is highly influenced by how that room is arranged. I have to agree that there many more factors apart from how the furniture is arranged that influence behavior in a room. One such example is the presence of natural light, but I will not go further with the example since this is not an “event organizing course”.  

Another example of how the physical environment influences behavior is traffic. I guess most people who are drivers have encountered “speed bumps” and chicanes meant to make drivers slow down. There are many ways in which to influence how people drive and the city of Rotterdam (in which I live) is a fabulous example of traffic management or better yet, traffic nudging.

The speed bumps and chicanes are created with a clear intent, namely to make people slow down. At the same time, I have observed a feature that is fully unintentional and makes people drive faster.

Did you ever drive on a motorway made out of concrete and not asphalt? The concrete motorways are quite distinct when it comes to driving experience. They produce a certain vibration in the car while driving on them. Of course not all concrete motorways are identical and they produce different vibrations, but I have a clear memory of driving on such a road in the Czech Republic.

Coming from Slovakia into the Czech Republic most of the way to Prague is on a concrete motorway. The legal speed limit on the motorway in the Czech Republic is 130 Km/hour. When driving on that motorway I’ve realized that I was driving very close (and sometimes slightly above) this speed limit. I usually don’t do that, especially because our car is not exactly a “speeder”; usually I drive around 110-120 km/hour.

The reason why I was driving faster on the way to Prague was the nasty vibration produced by the concrete motorway. When I was driving in between my normal speed interval (110-120 km/hour) the noise and the vibration in the car were very annoying, but at 130km/hour both the vibration and the noise were bearable.

My guess is that the Czech authorities did not intent to make people drive faster on their motorways (although in some central and eastern European countries the traffic police looks for any opportunity to give fines for speeding).  I believe that the motorway made out of large concrete uneven tiles was either a cheap solution or a heritage from communist times when little attention was given to the “user friendly” factor. At the same time, the effect still exists and if there is an intention to increase traffic safety, it would be a good idea to change the surface of the motorway to asphalt.

Another environmental source of influence is the exposure to scent. There is something very interesting about scent processing in the brain, namely that the sense of smell has the shortest route to the area of the brain that processes emotions and (long term) memory. By the “shortest route” I refer to the number of synapses that the information from the sensors has to go through towards its destination. At the same time smell is the sense that adapts the fastest in the sense that we can perceive a scent only for a short period of time; after this interval we will not perceive the smell even if the source of it still exists.

One of the most widely known influences of scent on behavior is in fact a “professional secret” of bakers. All bakeries either have a door opened or somehow allow the smell of freshly baked bread to get out on the street. This “professional secret” works better (for small bakeries) than any marketing arsenal. Simply smelling freshly baked bread (or croissants) makes you feel a sudden need for bread or pastry.

Apart from this “professional secret” of bakers, scent has other influences on behavior. For example in a study by Holland, R. W., Hendriks, M. and Aarts, H. (2005) the three Dutch researchers found an effect of smell on how people behaved with regard to cleanness. Half of the participants were exposed to a “cleaning product like” smell, while the others were exposed to no smell. The people who were exposed to the smell cleaned up biscuit crumbs (resulted from eating biscuits) more than the people who were not exposed to the “cleaning product like” smell.

Cleaning biscuit crumbs might sound trivial, but if the effect holds, then it would be a good idea to use some “scent manipulation” in high traffic public spaces that need to kept clean such as cafeterias and public toilets.

One influence of the physical environment that I have discussed in a previous post is related to the evaluation of volume.

The main idea is that we don’t perceive volume in three dimensions, but rather in one dimension, namely the height. This has influences in how we judge containers and on hour drinking behavior. Similarly, the shape of a container influences drinking behavior. The one-dimensional perception of volume does not only influence judgment and behavior, it actually influences how satiated we feel.

Related to the perception of volume and drinking is our perception about food. The behavior (eating) and the feeling of satiety are influenced by the size of the plate from which we eat. If the same quantity of food is placed on a small plate people will eat less and feel more satiated as compared to placing the same food on a larger plate.  So if you are on a diet, eat from small plates. The rationale is that we perceive quantity in relationship with a reference and in the case of food the plate is the reference.

Another environmental influence on behavior comes from (background) music. A series of studies by Adrian North (and colleagues) have shown that the presence or absence of background music influences choice and behavior. Moreover, the type of music is in the background plays a role in choice and behavior.

In one study (NORTH A. C., HARGREAVES D. J., MCKENDRICK J. (1999)), the influence of background music on wine purchasing behavior was investigated.

The study concluded that when French music was playing in a supermarket the purchase ratio between French and German wines was 5:1. In other words when French music was playing the clients of the supermarket bought French wines five times more than they did German wines. When German music was playing in the background, the ratio of purchase between French and German was 2:1. In other words, when German music was playing the clients of the supermarket bought French wines (only) twice as often as they did German ones.

In a different study, Charles S. Areni and David Kim (1993) found that playing classical music (as opposed to Top-Forty music) in a wine store lead to an increase in sales but not in volume. The authors conclude that people when classical music was playing people went for more sophisticated (and subsequently expensive) wines.

One thing should be mentioned here. These influences work very well when an individual experiences ambiguity. In other words, if you would clearly prefer a wine from New Zeeland the effect of German or French music will be virtually zero. At the same time many of the situations in which we have to make choices are somehow ambiguous. Wine purchasing is one example, but there are many more such as buying presents for people whose preferences you don’t really know.

Another important thing concerning the influences of music and other environmental influences is the issue of congruity or in simpler words the issue of matching. One study by Guéguen N. and Jacob, C., (2010) the authors concluded that playing romantic music in a flower shop had an influence on sales, but playing pop music did not (compared to playing no music). The main idea here is that there is a match (congruency) between romance and flowers.

Similarly for the French versus German Music influencing wine purchases. Both France and Germany are easily associated with wine… though Germany has a stronger association with beer. I am not fully convinced that playing Russian music would have an effect on the sales of Russian wine; though it could have an effect on sales of Russian vodka.

In a similar line of thinking, the use of smells has to take into account the congruency between concepts. For example, even if the owners of a bakery would like to stimulate their customers to keep the shop floor cleaner, I think it is not the best idea to make the bakery smell like a cleaning product.  

Before ending this post, I would like to make a warm recommendation. A few months ago I’ve stumbled upon this website http://architectures.danlockton.co.uk/. This gentleman has a very nice collection of example on how to influence behavior through design. Check out the design with intent toolkit (right hand side of the page).

Areni, C. S. and Kim, D. (1993) ,"The Influence of Background Music on Shopping Behavior: Classical Versus Top-Forty Music in A Wine Store", in Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 336-340.
Guéguen N. and Jacob, C., (2010) Music Congruency and Consumer Behaviour: An Experimental Field Study International Bulletin of Business Administration Issue 9 p.56-63
Holland, R. W., Hendriks, M. and Aarts, H. (2005) Smells like clean spirit. Nonconscious effects of scent on cognition and behavior Psychology  Science 16(9):689-93.
NORTH A. C., HARGREAVES D. J., MCKENDRICK J. (1999) The influence of in-store music on wine selections   Journal of applied psychology vol. 84, no2, pp. 271-276

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