Why We're Sometimes Kind Without Reason

Our brains are constantly, subtly being primed in fascinating ways by our physical surroundings.
(David Salafia/flickr)

The eminent sociologist Erving Goffman suggested that life is a series of performances, in which we are all continually managing the impression we give other people. If this is so, then public spaces function like a stage in the same way that our own homes and living rooms do. Architecture, landscaping, the dimensions of the stage, and the other actors around us all offer cues about how we should perform and how we should treat one another.

A man might urinate in a graffiti-covered alleyway, but he would not dream of doing so in the manicured mews outside an old folks’ home. He would be more likely to offer a kindness in an environment where he felt he was among family or friends, or being watched, than in some greasy back alley. In Goffman’s world, these are conscious, calculated responses to the stage setting. But recently we have learned that some of our social responses occur even without conscious consideration. Like other animals, we have evolved to assess risks and rewards in the landscapes around us unconsciously.

The evolutionary biologists D. S. Wilson and Daniel O’Brien showed a group of nonresidents pictures of various streetscapes from Binghamton, New York. Some of those streets featured broken pavement, unkempt lawns, and dilapidated homes. Others featured crisp sidewalks and well-kept yards and homes. Then the volunteers were invited to play a game developed by experimental economists in which they were told that they would be trading money with someone from the neighborhood they had viewed. You probably already know how they behaved: the volunteers were much more trusting and generous when they believed they were facing off with someone from the tidier, well-kept neighborhood. You might consider this a logical response to clues about each neighborhood’s social culture—tidiness conveys that people respect social norms, for example. But even the quality of the pavement—which bore no real relationship at all to the trustworthiness of a street’s residents—influenced them.

In fact, we regularly respond to our environment in ways that seem to bear little relation to conscious thought or logic. For example, while most of us agree that it would be foolish to let the temperature of our hands dictate how we should deal with strangers, lab experiments show that when people happen to be holding a hot drink rather than a cold one, they are more likely to trust strangers. Another found that people are much more helpful and generous when they step off a rising escalator than when they step off a descending escalator—in fact, ascending in any fashion seems to trigger nicer behavior.

Psychologists stretch themselves trying to explain these correlations. One theory suggests that we experience environmental conditions as metaphors: thus we would translate physical warmth as social warmth, and we would feel an elevated sense of ethics or generosity by gaining elevation. Another line of inquiry known as terror management theory posits that we are all motivated by a constant underlying fear of death. By this way of thinking, those cracked sidewalks in Binghamton would trigger unconscious fears that would cause us to retreat from the people who lived there. Whatever the mechanism, what is certain is that the environment feeds us subtle clues that prime us to respond differently to the social landscape—even if those clues are wholly untethered from any rational analysis of our surroundings.

Observing shoppers at a mall, University of North Carolina researchers found that twice as many people stepping off a rising escalator donated to a Salvation Army fund-raiser than did people stepping off a descending escalator. They also found that people who had just watched film clips of views from an airplane window were much more cooperative in computer games than people who had watched clips showing scenes from a car window. The same relationship between altitude and altruism appeared in several experiments. The researchers suggest that being high up, or the mere act of ascending, reminds us of lofty ways of thinking and behaving.

Neuroscientists have found that environmental cues trigger immediate responses in the human brain even before we are aware of them. As you move into a space, the hippocampus, the brain’s memory librarian, is put to work immediately. It compares what you are seeing at any moment to your earlier memories in order to create a mental map of the area, but it also sends messages to the brain’s fear and reward centers. Its neighbor, the hypothalamus, pumps out a hormonal response to those signals even before most of us have decided if a place is safe or dangerous. Places that seem too sterile or too confusing can trigger the release of adrenaline and cortisol, the hormones associated with fear and anxiety. Places that seem familiar, navigable, and that trigger good memories, are more likely to activate hits of feel-good  serotonin, as well as the hormone that rewards and promotes feelings of interpersonal trust: oxytocin.

“The human brain is adaptive, and constantly tuning itself to the environment it is in,” the neuroeconomist Paul Zak told me the day I met him in Anaheim, California. Zak is the researcher who discovered the key role that oxytocin plays in mediating human relationships. Unlike some more solitary mammals, Zak explained, humans have a huge concentration of oxytocin receptors in the oldest parts of our brain, which can kick into gear even before we have started talking to people.

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Charles Montgomery is a journalist and the author of The Shark God, which won the 2005 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction under its Canadian title, The Last Heathen.

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