Did you know that the way we dress, our facial expressions, our posture, and the tone of our voice make up 93 percent of what we communicate to others? Research pioneered by Dr. Albert Mehrabian shows that what we communicate non-verbally can be highly impactful. We are hardwired to listen to our senses without conscious thought, and this ability helps protect us from danger and saves us time making endless decisions throughout the day.
If we are so influenced by our senses, what else is subconsciously triggering our everyday decisions?
Lately, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to “nudges” in the built environment around us. The built environment includes the size and shape of our roads, parks, and buildings: these all drive our behavior. Specifically, I’ve been in search of ways the built environment can affect decisions we make about our health. What we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel impacts our actions—and emerging research in urban planning, occupational health, and behavioral science validates this. Here are just a few of the many ways to leverage the built environment to improve health outcomes:
Building location and access to public amenities can impact how much we move. For example, research shows that proximity to parks and other recreational facilities is consistently associated with higher levels of physical activity and healthier weight status among youth and adults. The same goes for proximity to public transit—there is a link between access to public transportation and physical activity since transit use typically involves walking to a bus or subway stop. In one study, train commuters walked an average of 30 percent more steps per day and were four times more likely to walk 10,000 steps per day than car commuters.
Several studies show that simply letting people know the health benefits of taking the stairs and showing their location (like putting a sign in the elevator lobby or using stair banners, like these) increases stair usage by 54 percent. Taking this a bit further, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a “StairWELL to Better Health” campaign in its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. They use music, art, an upgraded appearance, and motivational signage to nudge employees to use the stairs more often. (Check out their downloadable signs, and see “before” and “after” images of their stairwells.)
You may not have heard the term “choice architecture,” but you experience its impact every time you stand next to the candy display at a checkout counter. Choice architecture refers to the different ways in which choices can be presented to consumers and the impact of that presentation on consumer decision making.
For example, the number of choices presented, the manner in which attributes are described, and the presence of a “default” can all influence consumer choice. Many companies are using this strategy by reducing the number of unhealthy foods available in the workplace or by making them harder to find.
Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating, suggests a number of ways our eating behavior is significantly impacted by the way food is presented to us. For example, in some of his studies, people were 44 percent less likely to snack in kitchens that were tidy versus kitchen environments that were messy.
Keeping the kitchen clean is more than just a sanitation issue—it can affect how much we eat. In another study, Wansink found that people tend to eat less on plates that are 9-10 inches in diameter. People piled up food on larger plates, but felt “deprived” and went for a second helping when eating on smaller plates (around 6 inches in diameter). His other studies show that people are likely to serve themselves 20 percent less food on plates with “contrasting colors” to the food they are eating, e.g., white pasta on a red or blue plate. White breads and pastas on white plates? That is a recipe for “carb-loading”!
We have a strong desire to be in and among nature. It’s only natural: for most of human history we spent all our time outdoors. This preference, often referred to biophilia, was introduced and popularized by E.O. Wilson, known as the “father of biodiversity.” Wilson suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.
In Biophilic Design: Theory, Science and Practice, authors Stephen R. Kellert, Judith Heerwagen, and Martin Mador describe the importance of nature for human productivity:
“Nature is rife with sensory richness and variety in patterns, textures, light, and colors. All organisms respond with genetically programmed reflexes to the diurnal and seasonal patterns of sunlight and climate.”
Interestingly, biophilia-based design can be manifested in many ways. The most obvious way is to incorporate real plants, water, and natural views into buildings. Another way is to create “natural analogues” or use materials and patterns that evoke nature, such as artwork, ornamentation, biomorphic forms, or the use of natural materials. A third way to use biophilia is through configuration of space, by organizing interior environments or man-made outdoor landscapes, using similar to natural environments elements. In its paper “The Economics of Biophilia,” environmental consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green suggests:
“Over the last quarter century, case studies have documented the advantage of biophilic experience, including improved stress recovery rates, lower blood pressure, improved cognitive functions, enhanced mental stamina and focus, decreased violence and criminal activity, elevated moods and increased learning rates.”
There are hundreds more nudges and design strategies such as these that urban planners, architects, product designers, business owners, and homeowners can use to shape the environment around us to improve health and well-being. In the words of Winston Churchill:
“We shape our buildings; thereafter, our buildings shape us.”
The key is to be aware of how our environment affects us and to use this knowledge for good.