Why We're Sometimes Kind Without Reason

Our brains are constantly, subtly being primed in fascinating ways by our physical surroundings.

Christian Charisius / Reuters

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.

This should be a concern for city makers because, as much as we are drawn to other people, neither culture nor biological mechanisms ensure that we will always treat strangers well. For example, Dutch researchers found that oxytocin, which should reward us for engaging in cooperative or altruistic behavior, has what might be called a xenophobic bias. After puffing a synthetic version of oxytocin, Dutch students were offered the standard moral dilemma question: Would you throw someone in front of a train if doing so would save five other lives? Exposure to the oxytocin made the students less likely to toss someone with a traditional Dutch name in front of the train, but more likely to sacrifice someone whose name sounded Muslim. Such anticosmopolitan tribalism can seem depressing until you consider the miracle of trust and cooperation that great cities, and especially great public places, can foster. Design can prime us toward trust and empathy, so that we regard more people as worthy of care and consideration.

To demonstrate this idea, Zak took me for a walk down Southern California’s most convivial street, which, in a sad commentary on the state of American public space, sits beyond the fare gate at the entrance to Disneyland.

A statue of Disneyland founder Walt Disney in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle on Main Street. (Reuters)

We crossed under the berm that surrounds the theme park, traversed the faux town square with its veranda-fronted city hall, then paused midway down Main Street U.S.A., that simulacrum of ultrahappy urbanity. The place was full of people of all ages and races, pushing strollers, walking hand in hand, window-shopping, and taking photos among the arcades and eateries.

We inserted some incivility into that crowd. At Zak’s urging, I leaned my shoulder toward passing bodies, first brushing passersby, then making full contact. It was just the kind of behavior that would get you slugged on other streets, but time and again I got a smile, a steadying hand, or an apology. I tried dropping my wallet several times and got it back every time with an enthusiasm that bordered on the ceremonial. Then we upped the ante. We accosted random strangers and asked them for hugs. This was a bizarre request from two grown men, but the Main Streeters, men and women, responded with open arms and little hesitation. The place displayed a pro-social demeanor that was almost as cartoonish as the setting.

There are many reasons for the cheeriness on Disney’s Main Street U.S.A., not least of which is the fact that people go there intending to be happy. But Zak encouraged me not to ignore the powerful priming effects of the landscape around us. No storefront on this Main Street is more than three stories high, but those unused top floors play a visual trick. They have been shrunk to five-eighths size, giving the buildings the comfortable, unthreatening aura of toys. Meanwhile, from the striped awnings and gilded window lettering to the faux plaster detailing on each facade, every detail on the artificial street is intended to draw you deeper into a state of nostalgic ease.

Disney and his designers all came from the film industry, and they designed their Main Street to work like a scene in a movie, with props so compelling that every visitor feels as though she has become a part of the scene. They wanted visitors specifically to forget the dehumanizing sprawl that was even then creeping out from Los Angeles. “In the cities we’re threatened … We don’t talk to people, we don’t believe everything we hear, we don’t look people in the eye … We don’t trust people. We find ourselves alone. If we keep pulling these blinds down and cutting ourselves off , we die a little bit,” explained John Hench, Disney’s top lieutenant and leader of the group Disney dubbed his Imagineers back in 1978. “Walt wanted to reassure people … There’s some nostalgia involved, of course, but nostalgia for what? There was never a main street like this one. But it reminds you of some things about yourself that you've forgotten about.”

The scene enthralled the pioneering neuroimmunologist Esther Sternberg on her first visit. Sternberg, who examines the connection between environment, health, and the human brain, concluded that Main Street U.S.A.’s designers had an uncanny understanding of the neuroscience of place. “They did it brilliantly. They figured out in the 1950s and '60s, long before we understood neuroscience, exactly how to use design to get people from a place of anxiety and fear to a place of hope and happiness,” she told me.

The key to the place effect lies in the way that the brain links memory and emotion. On the one hand, Main Street U.S.A.’s evocative landmarks—quaint train station, city hall, distant Sleeping Beauty castle—instantly orient you to the landscape, reducing the anxiety you are hardwired to feel when you are unsure of your location in a complex environment. At the same time, those elements serve as emotional triggers. The hippocampus responds not just to visual signals, but to all our senses, including smell. So whether it is a candy-striped awning or the scent of cooking fudge wafting out over the sidewalk, Disney’s references trigger memories that produce feelings of safety and calm—though these memories are just as likely to have been drawn from an invented past as from our own experiences. (The effect is so powerful that developers of care facilities for dementia patients have replicated Main Street U.S.A. in common spaces whose landmarks and street activity are intended to comfort residents with reminders of a small-town past.)

Designing Antisociality

Disney’s street may be a simulacrum, an imitation of someone’s idea of a real place, but the calming and pro-social effect it has on people is undeniable. This is not to suggest that every public space should attempt Disney’s historical trickery, but we should acknowledge that every urban landscape is a collection of memory-and-emotion-activating symbols. Every plaza, park, or architectural facade sends messages about who we are and what the street is for.

The effect of aesthetics on emotions has been documented extensively. We know, for example, that the frequent sight of garbage, graffiti, and disrepair produces alienation and depression, especially among the elderly. We know from research on biophilia that infusions of nature don’t merely calm the mind, they alter our attitudes, making us more trusting and generous toward other people.

We also know that sharp architectural angles light up the brain’s fear centers much like the sight of a knife or a thorn, releasing stress hormones that make us less likely to pause and engage with places and people. (This effect can be witnessed on the street outside Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal, an addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where giant prisms of steel, aluminum, and glass slice threateningly toward the sidewalk, managing the amazing feat of emptying people from a once-busy stretch of Bloor Street.)

But the urban landscape does not need to adopt a spectacularly threatening stance to drive people away. Antisocial spaces are as common in the city as blank walls. In fact, blank walls are part of the problem.

Jan Gehl’s studies of street edges provide evidence. Gehl and others have found that if a street features uniform facades with hardly any doors, variety, or functions, people move past as quickly as possible. But if a street features varied facades, lots of openings, and a high density of functions per block, people walk more slowly. They pause more often. People are actually more likely to stop and make cell phone calls in front of lively facades than in front of dead ones.

During our experiments at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in New York City, we found that such long, dead facades do not just speed people up physically; they bring them down emotionally. On East Houston Street in Lower Manhattan, the small-lot urban fabric between Orchard and Ludlow was replaced in 2006 by a Whole Foods grocery store that presents a nearly unbroken swath of smoked glass for much of an entire city block. Volunteers who joined our psychological tours of the neighborhood reported feeling markedly less happy on the sidewalk outside this facade than almost anywhere else on their tour. They felt much better once they got to a grittier but lively stretch of shops and restaurants just a block east on Houston.

East Houston Street, New York City: People reported feeling significantly happier along the messy but active street front at top than they did along the blank but tidy facade at bottom. (Top: Charles Montgomery; Bottom: Alexandra Bolinder-Gibsand)

This points to an emerging disaster in street psychology. As suburban retailers begin to colonize central cities, block after block of bric-a-brac and mom-and-pop-scale buildings and shops are being replaced by blank, cold spaces that effectively bleach street edges of conviviality. It is an unnecessary act of theft, and its consequences go beyond aesthetics, or even the massive reduction in the variety of goods and services that results when one giant retailer takes over a block. The big-boxing of a city block harms the physical health of people living nearby, especially the elderly. Seniors who live among long stretches of dead frontage have actually been found to age more quickly than those who live on blocks with plenty of doors, windows, porch stoops, and destinations. Because supersize architecture and blank stretches of sidewalk push their daily destinations beyond walking distance, they get weaker and slower, they socialize less outside the home, and they volunteer less. Studies of seniors living in Montreal found that elderly people who lived on blocks that had front porches and stoops actually had stronger legs and hands than those living on more barren blocks. Meanwhile, those who could actually walk to shops and services were more likely to volunteer, visit other people, and stay active.

Fortunately, some cities have begun to enact laws to stop developers from killing the sociability of their streets. The Australian city of Melbourne adopted rules banning long, blank facades and forcing new shops and restaurants to have doors or display windows covering at least 80 percent of their frontage. Danish cities have gone further. In the 1980s most large cities in the country actually restricted banks from opening new branches on their main shopping streets. It is not that Danes hate banks; it is that passive bank facades bleed life from the sidewalk, and too many of them can kill a street. It is that the citizenry’s right to a healthy, life-giving public realm has trumped anyone’s right to kill it—a notion presumably ignored on those Manhattan blocks where four banks compete across corners.

New York City began playing catch-up in 2012, adopting new zoning that limited the ground-floor width of new stores on major avenues on the Upper West Side. On busy Amsterdam and Columbus avenues, buildings on lots wider than fifty feet will have to feature at least two nonresidential businesses, and transparent facades. Banks on Broadway will be restricted to just twenty-five feet of frontage. The move was partly an attempt to stop big national retailers and banks from gobbling up the mom-and-pop stores that give the neighborhood its character. “Stores are the soul of the neighborhood,” Gale Brewer, a neighborhood councilwoman, told The New York Times. “Small pharmacies, shoe stores, they mean everything to us.” By saving small business, the measure would also save human-scale blocks.

Vancouver has proved that dense cities can meet commercial real estate needs while keeping their architecture friendly. Even big-box retailers have had to change up their morphology to get a toehold in the city. Thus, a Costco and its parking lot were buried beneath slim condo towers and rows of street-level town houses on one end of Vancouver’s downtown peninsula. And near City Hall, a Home Depot and a Winners have been stacked like a hamburger patty on top of a row of street-front businesses and beneath a leafy garnish of garden apartments. The big boxes get their own entrances on the corner, while the rest of the block facade is shared by a Starbucks, a grocer, and several other shops. The result: the urge for low prices does not kill the street. People actually walk, bike, or take the subway to the big box and sit out front at the Starbucks, sipping their lattes in the rain.

This post is adapted from Charles Montgomery's Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.