- Issue July 4th, 2018
The imperceptible ways architecture impacts our behavior
By Ben Rutabana
Casinos. A wonderland to a lucky few, a sophisticated but solvable puzzle to elite minds but ultimately a cash siphon to most. The latter is because when stripped to its skin and bones, a casino is nothing more than a cash-churning warehouse. How it accomplishes this however, is nothing short of brilliant and well executed social engineering.
It’s common knowledge that all games are designed to give a statistical advantage to the house. If that’s the case, why do rational non-impulsive people still splurge in casinos? The atmosphere. There are obvious methods used to create an inviting atmosphere, for example free drinks offered to players. Others are more subtle: flashy and and flamboyant visual cues followed by a loud siren anytime someone wins money, encouraging the crowd to keep playing.
Some details are part of the very structure of casinos. Many of them have soft, lush carpeting, which fades out into hard tiles towards the exit, subconsciously driving people towards comfortable footing. Inside the arena, you’ll notice a lack of windows, natural light, and the absence of clocks. This is explicitly done so players don’t notice the passage of time. Instead, the warm lighting which floods the room gets less inviting nearing the exit. The most important aspect, however, is the building’s maze-like design , which discourages people from finding an exit.
The maze-like design is so effective that Ikea, a multinational Swedish furniture retail company, implements it in its stores worldwide. The goal is to maximize in-store time by pushing people through a confusing maze and encouraging impulse buys. Alan Penn, director of the Virtual Reality Centre for the Built Environment at University College London describes the path as “their catalog in physical form”. “You’re directed through their marketplace area where a staggering amount of purchases are impulse buys, things like light bulbs or a cheap casserole that you weren’t planning on getting … Because the layout is so confusing you know you won’t be able to go back and get it later, so you pop it in your cart as you go past.” The result? 60% of purchases made by people were not on their original shopping list.
This concept that physical structures and the built environment can limit and channel behavior in a predictable manner is not new. Maurice Broady, a British planner who coined the term “architectural determinism”, claimed that the built environment is the primary and perhaps sole determinant of social behavior.
Companies believe there’s some truth to Broady’s otherwise extreme view. Open office floor plans (those where no personal offices or cubicles exist) have become popular. The argument is that they foster a sense of community and faster dissemination of information among coworkers, which boost productivity. However, a study found that open-office employees take about 62% more sick days than those who work in private offices. Others have concluded that visual and noise pollution offset the benefits and overstimulated employees, stressing them in the long run.
Regardless of which side is correct, it’s clear that the number of walls affects the performance of the people working within them. The same can be said for the number of windows. Sunlight influences our sleep cycle, and sunlight deprivation can lead to sleep disorders. “Light certainly has a physiological impact on people,” says Dr Alan Lewis, a lecturer in architecture at Manchester university. “Research has shown that visible light helps thehuman body to regulate the production of the hormone melatonin, which in turn helps to regulate our body clock, affecting sleep patterns and digestion. “Visible light also helps to stimulate the body’s production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can reduce the symptoms of depression.”
Armed with knowledge of the once imperceptible ways environments influence behavior, architects strive to create the perfect space. But the truth is that creating the “perfect” space is an impossible, and subjective, balancing act between form and function. The space we occupy is an extension of ourselves and creating a permanent structure that perfectly matches complex, fluid, and ever-changing personalities is like building a snowman in a desert: difficult to pull off and impossible to keep up.