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Environment, Attitudes, and Behavior

Does where we live shape how we think and act?

This isn't the sort of thing I blog about regularly, but it strikes me that this New York Times article on suicide, of all things, has an important lesson about how our physical environments can shape our behavior.

According to the article, large numbers of "impulse" suicide attempts -- the ones that are undertaken with little premeditation -- could be prevented simply by making the most common means of taking one's life a little less convenient. Consider Great Britain, where replacing deadly "coal gas" with relatively non-toxic natural gas in home ovens led to a dramatic decline in the national suicide rate:

[I]n its unburned form, [coal gas] released very high levels of carbon monoxide, and an open valve or a leak in a closed space could induce asphyxiation in a matter of minutes. This extreme toxicity also made it a preferred method of suicide. “Sticking one’s head in the oven” became so common in Britain that by the late 1950s it accounted for some 2,500 suicides a year, almost half the nation’s total.
Those numbers began dropping over the next decade as the British government embarked on a program to phase out coal gas in favor of the much cleaner natural gas. By the early 1970s, the amount of carbon monoxide running through domestic gas lines had been reduced to nearly zero. During those same years, Britain’s national suicide rate dropped by nearly a third, and it has remained close to that reduced level ever since.

In short, removing an instrument of self-harm from people's homes made fleeting self-destructive impulses far less deadly.  Venturing a guess, it may even have made such impulses less common:  the constant presence of the nation's #1 instrument of suicide -- in the kitchen, no less -- surely triggered self-destructive thoughts among people in the middle of a temporary bout of depression or anxiety.

The lesson here is some matters that seem intensely private -- and exclusively in the realm of personal psychology -- more properly belong in the domain of public health.  Preventing suicide attempts that result from temporary despair may be less a matter of identifying and dealing with the underlying emotional issues, and more a matter of making the actual mechanics a pain in the ass.

At risk of reading too much into one article, I think there's a more general point to be made here:  our physical environment -- the objects we surround ourselves with, and the places we make for ourselves -- can have a potent influence both on what we do, and on how we think.

The influence of the physical environment hasn't gotten much air time in academic discourse about human behavior.  This strikes me as odd, since it's a natural complement to the two great debates over "free will" (how much we really have) and "nature vs. nurture (whether biology or culture most determine who we are and how we behave).  The effect of the physical environment could be brought up in either debate; but until now, it's gotten short shrift in both of them.  From what I can tell, that's a serious oversight:  as Great Britain's experience shows, there's plenty of empirical evidence that what's in people's homes can have a huge -- even determinative -- effect on their actions and choices.

There's a similar dynamic at work in discussions of transportation policy. Surrounding ourselves with cars, roads and ample parking -- but neither sidewalks to walk on, nor destinations worth walking to -- increases how much we drive, and decreases how much we walk. Still, many  transportation planners interpret the decision to hop in a car as an expression of a deep-seated personal preference, rather than a choice that's powerfully influenced by the built environment.

A robust academic debate might explore how the physical environment shapes behavior. Does the physical environment simply make certain inclinations easier to act on -- the way a convenient sidewalk makes walking easier for those who are interested in walking anyway?  Or do our environments actually foster certain habits of mind, and shape our inclinations and attitudes? 

I tend to think that the latter effect -- physical environments shaping attitudes themselves -- is quite powerful.  Alan, for example, talks about "Car-head": the tendency for drivers to see all transportation issues through the distorting lens of a car windshield, and to forget that bikes, buses and pedestrians have a legitimate right to use the road.   Alan's right.  A car-only landscape can make driving seem like a "natural" preference, and walking seem like a nuisance.  And while those attitudes are often portrayed either as innately human, or influenced primarily by a car-drunk culture, I think those attitudes are far more malleable, and affected by one's environs:  spend enough time in a place where walking's a joy, and you may well start to enjoy walking.

Which suggests that one powerful way to change people's attitudes about transportation may be to change neighborhoods themselves.  High fuel prices are already stimulating demand for the sorts of communities where people can drive less.  But once people live in those sorts of places for a while, my bet is that many will come to see a "car-lite" lifestyle as an obvious, natural, and preferable choice -- much as car-dependent lifestyle seems like the "natural" choice for those who live in today's far-flung suburbs.

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You wrote "The influence of the physical environment hasn't gotten much air time in academic discourse about human behavior."
The Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999) by Jared Diamond is a fascinating account of how the physical environment influenced the development of human civilization around the world in the last 13,000 years. It's a macro work, but it makes clear how different physical environments can explain the development of different human cultures in every part of the globe.

Posted by: John Robert Cornell on 9 Jul 08

There is developed theory out there based on research on exactly how people respond to their environments.

Spiral Dynamics by Don Beck and Chris Cowan is an excellent read if you want an insight into developmental psychology that is based on systems thinking. It is based on research by developmental psychologist Clare Graves

In this model, emergent world views are an adaptation to life conditions (external environmental conditions). This model not only explains emergent world views at the individual level but shows how these map onto cultures.

In my opinion this is absolutely essential reading if you want to have any hope of understanding why people think like they do and what they value and how thinking and value systems change.

Ken Wilber - from the Integral Institute - has made extensive use of this model in his integral map of the world.

On a more individual level, Ayurvedic medicine, although ancient, is also a model based on emergent complex adaptive systems as is Yoga. In these systems everything in the universe has specific qualities and these qualities increase the same qualities in the human system. In Ayurveda, an individual has a specific constitutional make up called their "nature". Sickness is a product of living out of harmony with this inner nature and larger Nature. Health is a state of balance between inner nature, action and Larger Nature.

Posted by: Alan McCrindle on 9 Jul 08

There is actually quite a bit of academic research into the link between physical environments and behaviour. Most research has been undertaken in the physical health field, and other research has looked at, for example, the link between street patterns and crime (see Bill Hillier's excellent research on this).

If you have a gander at NZ's Ministry for the Environment's webpage (, and look for 'value case urban design' you'll come across a study that looked at the value case for urban design. The bibliography provides rich grounds for studies into the link between design and health.

Posted by: Christopher on 10 Jul 08

The link between the built environment and behaviour is increasingly the focus of spatial planning, in the UK at least. New communities are being planned with the emphasis on encouraging sustainable lifestyles, particularly in transport terms. Local centres with shops, schools, and libraries will be located to be easiest to access on foot or by bicycle, for example.

What is more difficult is changing the behaviour of those who live in places built with the assumption that the car is always the first travel choice. Housing developments of the 80s and 90s embodied this assumption, to the extent that parking spaces were sometimes more generously sized than bedrooms!

In my opinion, there needs to be critical mass of people making their car last choice rather than first, as many I've talked to say that they would walk or bike if the roads were 'safer' (ie less congested with cars). It will be interesting to see at what petrol price this behavioural shift really kicks in. As the cost of petrol moves move faster than planning processes, I think behaviour will then be able to lead the reshaping of the physical environment.

Posted by: Anna on 11 Jul 08

Did anyone here notice that the human population worldwide is exploding, that July 111th was World Population Day and that too many of our leading politicians and mass media moguls did not take advantage of World Population Day by so much as mentioning this "mother" of all human-driven global challenges?

Yesterday was World Population Day. Can anyone name one world leader or mass media organization to direct our attention to this momentous event?

After all, if Earth cannot be expected to sustain the skyrocketing growth of global human population, perhaps there is a case to be made for political leaders and mass media "talking heads" to advocate family planning, health education and contraception programs universally, freely and immediately available for voluntary use.

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 12 Jul 08

Thank-you for bringing attention to this important issue with this post. As an interior designer and a feng shui consultant I am sensitive to the energy in all spaces. I always have been. In my work over the years, I have seen how the external environment can influence ones thoughts and perceptions. For example, even the simplest aspect of clearing clutter can lighten the mood in a room and contribute to an improvement in mental health. --Cheryl Janis, writer of Planet Pink n' Green -

Posted by: Planet Pink n' Green on 13 Jul 08

What a fascinating post (and comments). Our environment - it's shape and structure do indeed influence us. If our world view is crowded in by clutter and physical and emotional messes (see Cheryl's comment) it really does effect our outlook and coping abilities. I had never thought about the toxins in the home environment and how changing that to greener is bound to help for anyone who isn't on a momentary basis, coping well. Less environmental danger and all. Interesting viewpoint that had not been pointed out to me before.

Posted by: Mary on 13 Jul 08

Clark, thanks for the post; this stuff is essential to sustainability, and as you point out, largely missing from our technology-obsessed debate… (As a side note to other posters: while I agree this subject has received some academic attention, there is a high level of ignorance from the people who plan and build our physical environment. In general, transportation planners, local elected officials, home builders, and their funders neither know nor care about applied feng shui, spiral dynamics, or evolutionary theory.)

Clark, I think you asked the right question here: “Does the physical environment simply make certain inclinations easier to act on…? Or do our environments actually foster certain habits of mind, and shape our inclinations and attitudes?”
The answer of course is both, but it’s a wicked problem trying to determine which is which. Most of the research on the link between urban design and health focuses on walkability/ ‘other’ transportation modes and exercise or obesity. But while correlation is easy to establish, there is little data to demonstrate that activity-friendly cities don’t simply attract more active people, and visa-versa.

Another of your points that deserves a highlight: the idea of making suicide mechanically difficult, in addition to making people less depressed. While they are both important, you seem to suggest that one is easier (more effective) than another, and you ask if this principle can be applied to urban design. My answer is an emphatic yes (in fact, I’ve staked my career on it). In fact, I think it’s the better approach to sustainable systems – change the systems, not the people, and let people adapt to their new systems, which they will do quickly and easily (that’s what humans do!). But there’s the rub; making suicide a ‘pain in the ass’ is a good thing, but apply it to transportation…

The major problem with what you’re suggesting, and one I have no answer to, is that we have designed our systems around cheap oil and the car for so long that our systems must be overhauled, not tinkered with. So while we are redesigning neighborhoods away from the car, it is drivers who will suffer, and they will fight like hell (they sure do in my neighborhood!). Changing neighborhoods *will* change attitudes, but in the short-term, there will be a painful delay and hot debate – about expensive fuel, parking spaces, congestion, bad weather, and everything that people trapped in old systems have come to depend on.

Posted by: justus on 14 Jul 08



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