It’s not particularly easy to change human behaviour by design

virgin media designMany of the techniques employed by modern illusionists rely on a thorough grounding in the research of psychologists. They’re not alone in standing on the shoulders of academics to bend people to their will. Many of our beliefs about the workings of our society and workplaces and their design are based on this sort of manipulation. It’s telling that the growth of consumerism in the 20th Century, especially after the War when we first began to move from a needs based economy to one fuelled by desire, was driven by the ideas of Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Edward Bernays became the ‘father of PR’ by popularising his uncle’s theories in the US then applying them to mould the subconscious desires of the American masses. He did this not just in the name of commerce but also in that of politics because he believed that society was becoming increasingly irrational, immoral and dangerous.

How the father of psychoanalysis begat the father of PR is evident from Bernays’ own writings. In his 1928 book Propaganda he wrote: “if we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.”

The reference to propaganda is telling. It’s a dirty word nowadays, largely because of its association with the era of fascism and communism, but at the time Bernays wrote his book propaganda was still enjoying its heyday while sewing the seeds of our modern preoccupation with manipulation, media, the message and marketing. Bernays’ statement was very much of its time but still resonates today.

The outstanding documentary maker Adam Curtis made the manipulation of opinion based on this kind of thinking the theme of his amazing, eye-opening series The Century of the Self which was first aired in 2002. (The series is now available online on youtube.) As well as describing the work of Bernays and his contemporaries, Curtis’ series brings the ideas described in this pre- and post-war era up to date and extends it to the actions of contemporary politicians, especially with regard to New Labour and its attempted, sometimes successful, sometimes cack-handed manipulation of opinion and thought.

What this demonstrates is that as soon as somebody describes a theory or discovers something about how people function, somebody else will take that knowledge and attempt to use it as a way of modifying somebody else’s thoughts and actions, not least while they’re at work.

A good example of this can be seen in the modish application of psychogeography to a wide variety of new areas. Psychogeography, as defined by one of its founders Guy Debord is “the study of the precise effects of geographical setting, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood and behaviour of the individual” and started life as an offshoot of Situationist thinking in Paris in the 1950s. So while it may have originally been about the manipulation of the aesthetic and political, the idea has now been bastardised and reinvented by our post-modern sensibilities to mean whatever the hell anybody likes.

Talk of psychogeography, while at best nebulous, at worst meaningless, still has a particularly appeal given our ongoing fixation on the relationship between people and place. Which explains why the use of the physical environment to either manipulate people or enhance their well-being and moods depending on your point of view is a recurrent theme in both the domestic and commercial design press.

I can see two problems with the way this material is presented. The first is that there is often too much emphasis placed on cause and effect. We are sometimes told, for example, that a particular shade of blue will give an air of tranquillity to a room or make people more productive. Well it might, but only if the other 57 factors that make people feel calm and productive are also sorted. As well as their relationships with their work and their colleagues, these will also include some factors beyond the control of the employer; the person’s home life, what they had for breakfast, whether they like blue and that idiot who carved them up on the way in. There is a clear limit to the impact that a factor such as the colour of your office can have in isolation.

The second is that much of the thinking about the way we design workplaces is still based on need rather than desire, the exact opposite of what we expect when designing our homes. Office design and management is still largely about rationality and practicality rather than the subconscious desire for stuff we just plain want that characterises the ideas of Edward Bernays and the modern consumerism he helped to create. There are signs that is changing as the office shifts its function, but the fact remains that changing behaviour by design is not as easy as some people would have you believe.

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Image courtesy of Area Sq

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