• Zemina

Places and Spaces: Catalysts for Behavioural Change

The above photo is taken from a really cool article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/architecture-as-a-trigger_2_b_14244346

Behaviour Change is understood, officially as:

“Any transformation or modification of human behavior."


Often times, behavioural change is discussed within the context of internal transformation. Psychotherapy tools such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness are such instances. Articles in business magazines such as this one discuss behaviour change as a process of shifting mindsets and although internal work is critical to behavioural change, I am of the mind that we are missing a very important piece to these discussions; a piece that requires much less energy.

Consideration on biological energy use is very important. This is because our biological systems are set up in such a way so as to engage in actions and decisions that use minimal energy. One reason as to why we are programmed in this way is to ensure we have enough energy conserved in times where we may have to use our fight or flight system. It is due to our inclination to conserve, that we rely so much on unconscious thought patterns and biases to help us make our decisions. It is also why we may not particularly enjoy learning something entirely new because it takes up a significant amount of our mental resources. In the same way, internal transformation and shifting internal mindsets take up a significant amount of mental resources, thereby reducing our chances of successful behaviour change.

The good news, however, is that there may be a way to shift our behaviour without using so much energy:

Objects, buildings and places generally provide us with clues and hints on ways in which we can interact with our space. Frequent visits to the same place, for instance, will eventually form a habit; an action that we do not think much about. However, consider the situation when something in your external environment, one that you visit often; changes. All of a sudden, we become conscious about the ways in which objects and things are organized in said space, and, subsequently, re-evaluate how we interact and think about them. In the world of design, we may think about this in terms of affordances: the intangible “thing” that gives you access to a building, place, space.,’ it is the space between you and the thing.

This is a very powerful notion, specifically as it relates to behaviour change because, although you do require conscious and explicit thought when something in your external environment changes, I suspect that it does not require the same amount of energy levels as an internal shift may require. I suggest this for two reasons:

1. Our brains are naturally wired to make sense of and produce meaning with space and our experiences

2. Now this is more speculative, but since changes in space are scaffolded by physical, tangible objects; it's a change you actually witness and see rather than a change you have to experiment and iterate in your brain space (ex, egocentric navigation); they may take less energy (i.e., mental effort) because you're using your external environment to re-adjust and re-direct your behaviours (ex, allocentric navigation). Mind you, however, not much research has been directed towards determining whether there is any difference between navigation styles and mental effort but considerable research has been done between allocentric navigation and decision making/decision points.

Place-based information plays a fundamental role in the lives of human beings:

Our memory systems rely on spatial information, specifically our episodic memories. I have discussed, in more detail, some of these cellular and biological mechanisms in a previous post As such, the context of these memories and information are of particular significance.

Imagine a scenario where a group of people have to interact with a space that has historically resulted in stress, trauma and/or threats. Here, in this particular group, we will witness behaviours that are developed and adapted specifically to reduce harm and increase survival. Now imagine another group who does not feel any stress, threat or have faced trauma in said space, behaviours observed here will be fundamentally different as compared to the first group.

It is now easy to see that the behaviours and decisions we make, in accordance to a specific spatial location are informed by context. Thus, the type of behaviour we witness is not just a function of the space, but the experiences in that space.

Now imagine further still how behaviour between the same affordances will differ between the two groups mentioned. Many insights and learnings can be taken from the group who feels threatened in the space of interest. In fact, learnings gained from understanding how the threatened group interact with the affordances as opposed to the non-threatened group can help inform productive changes to external environments with the aim to reduce stress, trauma and threat in the first group while maintaining homeostasis in the first group. This, of course, would suggest that not only can you elicit behaviour change with minimal energy using external cues, but also, that you can create spaces that are explicitly meant to re-wire previously stressful memories and encounters.

Nature VS Nurture:

Much of the discussions related to behaviour change reminds me of (still) ongoing debates between nature vs nurture. For a long time, Western scientists believed that nature dictated ones genes, talents, etc. Only until recently have we started to clue into the profound ways in which our environment, our nurture, has shaped us, mostly thanks to epigenetics.

I am finding the same pattern repeating in discussions related to behaviour change. The conversation appears to be focused on the notion that behavioural change can only occur by internal means. This is not necessarily the case; a point I hope I have sufficiently pointed out above.

Furthermore, I find it troubling that the onus of behaviour change is placed solely on the shoulders of individual citizens. Though it is the responsibility of each and every one to make a contribution to more positive change, both within themselves and in their communities, we must remember why behaviour change is such a hot topic at the moment, some of them being:

1. To cope with the stressful and uncertain work environments

2. To shift mindsets out of colonialism and capitalism; into healthier ways of living and being

3. To reduce otherness and increase diversity and inclusion

4. Climate Change

Upon close contemplation, you will find that much of these reasons are a result and product of many of our institutions and systems and being that they are much larger entities, they are just as responsible to contributing and working towards positive change as individual citizens are. Thus, it is my hope that part of this work, the work of re-adjusting our spaces and places to facilitate behaviour change (with the assumption and speculation that it may take less mental effort thereby increasing the success of the behavioural change) and help communities heal and prosper; be placed on the shoulders of our institutions and systems; afterall, isn't that what they're there for?

References + Inspiration:

Duffy, F. D. (2012). Counseling for Behavior Change. In Goldman's Cecil Medicine (pp. 50-52). WB Saunders.

Ing, David. (2020). Are System Changes Different from System + Change? OCAD University Lecture; SFI Program. http://coevolving.com/blogs/index.php/archive/are-systems-changes-different-from-system-change/

Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort (Vol. 1063). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Mackay, Jory. (2019). The most effective way to implement behavior change. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90394652/how-to-implement-a-behavior-change

Ratner, Paul. (2018). How evolution made our brains lazy. Big Think. https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/evolution-made-our-brains-lazy?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1

Selinger, J. C., O’Connor, S. M., Wong, J. D., & Donelan, J. M. (2015). Humans can continuously optimize energetic cost during walking. Current Biology, 25(18), 2452-2456.

Torres, Alexis., Hout C. Michael. (2019). Pupils: A Window Into the Mind. Frontiers Young Minds. https://kids.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/frym.2019.00003

Wood, P. B. (2017). Citizenship, Activism and the City: The Invisible and the Impossible. Routledge.


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