The Ecology Of Ecological Behavior

Last year, I was assigned with the task of overseeing the registration desk at an academic conference. Finding this a rather dull affair, I chose to employ my time doing what idle observers often do best: people watching.

The registration desk was preceded by a door – not just any door, but a very cumbersome door designed in the late 1930’s (which, ironically, is representative of the architectural style of functionalism). Now, the door had an obvious protrusive vertical handle, designed for grabbing and pulling. What mad the door unique, however, was the sticker next to the handle. In bold capital letters, it read: “PLEASE TURN THE HANDLE”. This pointed to another unremarkable horizontal handle hidden behind the more obvious vertical one.

So, we had a conference full of young, brilliant and highly literate minds walking towards the registration desk. They walked towards the door, and …

You guessed it. They pulled, wrenched, pushed and tugged the vertical handle back and forth, often with great force and fervor, followed by a sense of urgency and embarrassment. Some halted their behavior, took a small pause, read the text and opened the door as instructed. Others never made past this horrendous design feature without my intervention.

This is a true story, but it is equally an important analogy. The same happens every day in our lives when, despite our pro-environmental attitudes, knowledge or values, we behave contrarily and only in retrospect reconsider our wrongdoings.

If we are to draw on theories from ecological psychology, I have good news. This all can be changed, powerfully, and it is mostly a matter of design. One very basic design principle, advocated among others by cognitive scientist Donald Norman in his book The Design of Everyday Things, is that if objects appear to commonly afford unwanted behavior, the fault lies not in the user but in the lack of intuitive guidance which should be implemented in the design. If a door screams “GRAB!”, we grab. Reading instructions comes second. 

Norman, like many in the design community, is greatly influenced by the works of James Gibson, whose Ecological Approach to Visual Perception is considered a classic in the field of perceptual psychology. The key component of Gibson’s work is the concept of the affordance. By affordance, we mean the opportunities for action provided to an organism by an object or an environment.

The key lesson from ecological psychology is that the physical properties of our environment play a great role in defining what we do. This is because affordances are taken to be the primary objects of perception. Our door handle primarily afforded grabbing, which is why very few people did otherwise. They did not perceive a passive door handle with instructions, they perceived the active quality of “grabability”. Objects aren’t passive items which we modulate as we wish. In many respects, objects and environments modulate us.

There is no particular reason why this wouldn’t apply to pro-environmental behavior. Pro-environmental attitudes are known to translate into behavior poorly. I have argued elsewhere that this is because the primary affordances in our environment are not sustainable. Even those of us who do our best to live pro-environmentally often fall into the door handle trap. Simply, our behavioral environment is not intuitively pro-environmental: it requires too much reading instructions and too little perceptual guidance.

To our potential leverage, this is only half of the story. Our physical environments, by means of the behavior they afford, also shape our attitudes and values. This owes partly to cognitive dissonance or the foot-in-the-door effect. We not only do things because we value them, but also value things because we do them. If our environments primarily afford private transport, it is less likely that we will learn to value public transport or bicycling, and vice versa.

Us humans have a unique capacity of transforming our environment to match our expectations. This, in evolutionary biology, is known as niche construction. We design our environments to match our ideals, which are in turn reinforced by the behavior our environments afford. Until now this feedback loop has been primarily fed with unsustainable input. However, there is no reason why we couldn’t, through radical decisions, leverage this process to the sustainable direction.

One of the biggest urban challenges today is to make the most intuitive behavior in our environments pro-environmental. No longer can we expect fully rational human beings to read instruction stickers prior to action, as the designer of our door-handle assumed. They won’t, and if they do, it will only be after failing. Intuitive usability is key to designing sustainable urban space. This means enhanced and more accessible bicycling lanes, public transport, more recycling and greenery, less parking space and less opportunities for wasteful consumption.

James Gibson is not generally known as a sustainability advocate, but his theory of affordances presents us an important lesson: “There is only one world, however diverse, and all animals live in it, although we human animals have altered it to suit ourselves. We have done so wastefully, thoughtlessly, and, if we do not mend our ways, fatally”.