Looking for a Place to Hide? 3 Steps to Finding Good Spaces
Learn to trust your psychological "danger detectors" in uncharted spaces.
Posted Jun 11, 2019
When you enter a new physical space, such as a theater, restaurant, or business meeting, where do you prefer to sit? Near the front of the room? Near the back? Next to a window? The specific selections we make—ranging from seat choice in a theater to city relocation—are not random. There is a discernible structure underlying the relationship between landscape and psychology.
Our ancestors had preferences, too
According to the savanna hypothesis (Orians, 1980; Orians, 1986), our evolved aesthetic preferences are finely tuned to past surroundings—i.e., the tropical African savanna—widely believed to be the site in which humans originated. This powerful idea makes the case that Darwinian natural selection favored preferences, motivations, and decision rules that push us toward resource-rich environments (e.g., plants, food, safety, health, etc.) and away from resource-poor environments filled with survival threats. We carry these biases with us today.
Here’s how it works.
The savanna hypothesis includes three stages: selection, information gathering, and exploitation (Orians & Heerwagen, 1992). The primary decision faced in Stage 1 is whether to canvass or flee a landscape upon initial encounter. Completely closed forest canopies are rejected because they inhibit viewing and mobility. Wide open environments lacking cover and protection are also abandoned. Initial preferences and choices made during the selection stage are often emotional rather than intellectual. They do not usually involve an exhaustive cognitive evaluation of all the benefits and disadvantages of the landscape. It is something closer to sensing a vibe or having a hunch.
Occupational and social desires often drive people to relocate to areas that offer an abundance of those items. Recent trends in domestic migration, mobility, and globalization, especially among younger individuals, makes the question of where to live a crucial one. Florida (2004) refers to it as “the most important decision of your life.” Location is connected to a host of life satisfaction variables including employment opportunities, education, concentrations of skilled and creative people, and the availability of romantic partners (Florida, 2008).
Home sellers and buyers are certainly familiar with the notion of “curb appeal”—the visual attractiveness of a house as seen from the street. This typically includes the exterior of the home as well as the landscaping, outdoor sidewalks, and driveway. Stage 1 mimics this concept in many ways. A house hunter’s first view of a home for sale, whether in-person or online, often leads to an immediate decision to explore the inside or flee the house never to return.
2. Information gathering
Assuming the experience in the first stage is decent, individuals begin exploring the environment for resources and possible hazards. Stage 2, information gathering, involves mentally mapping the area for hidden places to harbor oneself, family, and allies. One can also evaluate possible routes for escape in the event of danger. At this stage, people show a preference for hills and pathways that change elevation and wind around, hinting at the potential of something promising around the corner. One study found that people have an affection for mystery and intrigue at this stage (Kaplan, 1992). In sum, great effort is put into risk assessment and resource estimation at this stage.
A number of studies have documented the benefits of being in the presence of plant life. In fact, just looking at trees might even have a tangible health benefit: Patients who viewed trees outside the window recovered more quickly from hospital stays (Ulrich, 1984). Flowers also appear to have a positive impact on hospital patients. Bringing flowers increases optimism and actually improves the rate of recovery (Watson & Burlingame, 1960).
Most humans have an aversion to photos depicting drought conditions and arid landscapes, preferring instead images of green surroundings (Balling & Falk, 1982). Other data suggest that the addition of trees and vegetation increases positive evaluations of built environments, demonstrating the transformative power of foliage (Ulrich, 1983).
The decision of whether to stay or leave is at the heart of stage 3, exploitation. This final stage involves elaborate mental calculations that help to determine if one should stay long enough to enjoy the full bounty of resources available in the habitat. All humans face decisions about how much time and energy to allocate to competing demands. The solutions to these decisions involve trade-offs. A lofty rock ridge brings benefits (e.g., easy observation of competitors below), but they may not outweigh the risk of death that comes from falling. Likewise, a clear and exposed area good for foraging may open the door to predators (Orians & Heerwagen, 1992).
Studies in biophilic design report that people living and working in spaces with vegetation compared to those without vegetation show improved performance on mental tasks, more positive moods, greater ability to re-focus attention, stress reduction, and diminished perceptions of pain in health care settings (Kellert, Heewagen, & Mador, 2008). Individuals who viewed pictures of nature scenery showed less physiological distress (Ulrich, 1986).
Subjects from Australia, Argentina, and the United States all showed similar taste in photos depicting trees. The trees that made a moderately dense canopy with trunks that separated in two near the ground – the savanna-like trees – were preferred by participants across the three cultures over trees with different canopy shapes, canopy densities, trunk heights, and branching patterns (Orians & Heerwagen, 1992).
Weather Patterns and Seasonal Transitions
Two perspectives are helpful in addressing evolved responses to landscapes, one spatial and the other temporal. The spatial frame of reference points out particular stages of exploration in novel landscapes, as discussed in the previous section. An additional layer of the savanna hypothesis involves decision making over different time frames (Orians & Heerwagen, 1992). The temporal dimension concerns short-term and long-term habitat variation in critical survival factors (e.g., weather patterns and seasonal transitions).
Light availability and weather patterns are two time-related factors that impact choices. Long shadows at the end of the day may elicit the desire to set up campsite instead of continuing to move through the environment in darkness. Likewise, daily weather issues can force one to seek shelter quickly. Dark clouds, winds, thunder, and lightning are cues that may initiate the decision-making process.
Along with daily fluctuations, humans are sensitive to environmental changes on a seasonal scale. In general, natural selection favors traits that maximize benefits and minimize costs. People will show preferences for long term signs of robust prosperity because the algorithms that make habitat related decisions were shaped over time in response to specific positive and negative features of the environment. Indicators of harvest, such as fruit, budding flowers, and verdure, are favored over bare trees and impoverished fields.
One of the first mental and emotional calculations we make upon entering an unknown habitat is to quickly evaluate the safety and beauty of the surroundings. We feel good when we determine a new place to be safe, clean, and interesting to look at. These mechanisms of appraisal evolved over thousands of generations on the African savanna and continue to influence the way we process both natural and built environments today.
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