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Understanding the Science and Psychology Behind Buildings

Architecture is a socially responsible profession. The American Institute of Architects 2017 Code of Conduct obliges members to make the world a better place. It asks architects to raise the world’s living standards, conserve natural and cultural heritage, improve the environment, and design for dignity and safety. In other words, protect the good and fix the bad.


Unfortunately, human behavior can be a barrier to lofty goals. New Urbanism, for example, relies on people choosing mass transportation, cycling, and walking over driving. That’s difficult when more than 50% of the US population believes that “the climate change we are currently seeing is a natural phenomenon that happens from time to time” and that “scientists don’t really know what they are talking about on environmental issues.”. Healing hospitals require not only natural views and daylight but also physicians and staff working to reduce patient stress. Artful schools won’t energize learning without teacher buy-in, worshipful spaces alone do not create faith and tolerance, and impressive government edifices don’t make politicians transparent.


It seems unrealistic to expect architects to design more productive workplaces, safer housing, and sustainable environments in the face of climate change deniers, unresponsive building users, uninterested or uncooperative owners, and unconvinced government officials. Conventional wisdom holds education as the means of solving these kinds of problems. “Knowledge is power,” former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said, adding to Sir Francis Bacon’s original Latin aphorism that “Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.” But psychologists know that awareness of a behavioral problem and its solution isn’t the same as solving the problem. More often than not, knowledge doesn’t change behavior.


Psycho-social models offer insight on how, when, and why people modify what they think and do. Dual processing theory proposes behavior is driven as much by unconscious activities as by cognition. Scientists believe two systems account for human decisions. One system is rational, based on knowledge, reasoning, and rules, and is conscious. Education plays an important role. The other system is associative, impulse-driven, emotional, and unconscious. Here, instinct and experience are key. The systems work together, but not always collaboratively. When they disagree, one overrides the other.


For architects, this is important information. Outside of structural integrity (firmitas, as Vitruvius would call it), buildings are similarly bifurcated, playing to the reasoning side of the brain for user compliance with functional needs (utilitas) and to the emotional lobe for aesthetic consideration (venustas). Aesthetes consider a stout, serviceable, banal building a disappointment. Yet, a building that succeeds as art without collapsing, but does not motivate desired behaviors is a societal (and Code of Conduct) failure. More important, it’s a lost opportunity to change the world.


The difficulty of designing buildings that, alone, shape long-term behavior has been previously discussed. On their own, architects have limited to zero chance of pulling it off. Prospects are somewhat better with the help of psychologists because research suggests it is possible for architecture to behaviorally intervene. The transformational engine is there; all that’s missing is fuel. Adding a third specialist to the team, a creative writer, can power the intervention.


A variety of theories from psychology and communication describe the process of behavior change. The Transtheoretical Model (TMM) regards behavior modification as a multi-step process that begins with changing minds and leads to changed behavior. Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) posits environments, personal factors, and behaviors are interrelated . The Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) links behavior with personal and societal beliefs. Self Determination Theory (SDT) argues motivation is the strongest factor, which can be intrinsic (self-motivating because the behavior is fun or interesting) or extrinsic (stimulated by external rewards or punishment). Intrinsic motivation is longer lasting because without it, once external factors are gone, previous behaviors return. SDT speculates intrinsic motivation is driven by feeling competent about achieving a new behavior, autonomy in choosing and having control over it, and relatedness of the behavior to personal and societal values.


Consider, then, an architecture that is based on intrinsically motivated behaviors, incorporates features that allow users to practice and develop competency in the behavior, offers opportunities for them to apply their new skills, embeds behavioral reinforcement throughout the building—and does so without an Orwellian atmosphere of manipulation. What would such architecture look like?


History is filled with examples, from the Parthenon to Notre-Dame de Paris. Without knowing they were practicing psychology, pre-modern architects employed SCT, TPB, SDT, TMM with another behavioral model, Narrative Transportation Theory (NTT), to produce buildings that changed what people thought and did. Their formula was a different kind of Vitruvian triangle. Instead of commodity, firmness, and delight, they applied psychology, story, and design.


NTT acknowledges humans are born storyphiliacs. Children don’t have to be forced to consume stories; they happily watch Frozen ad nauseam. At some level, we are born knowing that the more of life we experience, the greater our chance for success. Learning through fiction is in our genes, and it doesn’t end when we’re old enough to know better. Eventually, however, we realize there can be only so many teaching moments before one kills us. At that point we hesitate before taking new risks. This improves actuarial tables but slows evolution. So, hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans invented the next best thing to learning by doing: virtual experiences delivered with the fidelity of real life, notably without the physical danger. Immersed in a story we are transported to a new world, mentally synch with the protagonist, and adopt their identity and values. We see through their eyes, feel what they feel, grow with them, suffer together, collectively learning through the School of Hard Knocks. Part of what makes this possible is what psychologists call Theory of Mind (ToM), our innate ability to read others’ mental states.



Narrative is a time-proven means of changing and reinforcing beliefs. Stories appeal to the emotional side of our decision-making systems. Early architects embedded story in their buildings, combining narrative and multiple psychological theories into architectural behavioral interventions. Stories either relied on prior knowledge (Model 1) or were delivered first-run by the building itself (Model 2). For example, the Parthenon’s east elevation depicted the birth of Athens. Portrayed on the west was a mythological electoral contest between two gods over city naming rights. Panoptic pediments rendered the stories, while the building itself was home to a 37-foot sculpture of the protagonist, Athene. A trip to the Parthenon in 430 BCE literally and literarily immersed visitors in narratives about divine democracy (ironic, since the building is the Western world’s most fictionalized secular icon of democracy, the form-giver of countless government and financial institutions), which adult citizens already knew and could relate to children and travelers. Each visit and revisit to the Parthenon reinforced messages of Grecian wisdom.



Lore was similarly visualized in Roman temples, civic buildings, and monuments. Buildings acted as story adaptations of other media. Medieval church stained glass and ornament were extended religious plays that referenced contemporary stage dramas. Monoscenic sculpture, continuous narrative columns, progressive, sequential, episodic, and synoptic architectural art explicitly and implicitly described behaviors expected by society. History, cautionary tales, and moral lessons were integral to liturgical, civic, and residential architecture. Some narrative themes were intended to convert non-Christians or were politically motivated to humble visitors before nobility. Others were more positive behavioral cues, exemplifying cultural norms, showcasing role models, personalizing, and framing harmonious societal values.


Persuasive buildings aren’t built today. The symbiotic relationship between psychology, narrative, and architecture disappeared at the beginning of the modern era, save for theme parks and an occasional world exposition. Today, in a time of declining architectural influence, that’s a missed opportunity.


Persuasive buildings aren’t built today. The symbiotic relationship between psychology, narrative, and architecture disappeared at the beginning of the modern era, save for theme parks and an occasional world exposition. Today, in a time of declining architectural influence, that’s a missed opportunity. Behavior changing, story-driven buildings are a chance for architecture to reacquire meaningfulness, reignite the public’s interest, not to mention fulfill the AIA Code of Ethics. As poet Muriel Rukeyser said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms”. Long before there was Aesop there was architecture.


Future smart buildings and smart cities could reduce the need for architectural behavioral interventions. Technology that anticipates, adapts, and makes decisions on our behalf regarding transportation, energy, security, education, food, and health might, in the final act, take humans out of the decision-making loop. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is debatable. Until then, and in case the cavalry doesn’t arrive in time, there’s narrative.


Unacknowledged in the AIA’s Code of Conduct is that generic fashion statements hold little power to improve the human condition beyond shelter and utility. Reductive design stripped away embodied stories, the behavioral glue that bound architecture to the public for thousands of years. When arcane theory replaced narrative, buildings lost their persuasive power and the public lost interest in architecture.


Building users often do not act as expected or hoped, leaving architects three ways to change the world: educate, persuade, or renovate and try again. Good luck relying on education. In 1999 20% of Americans believed the sun revolved around the earth. As Animal House Faber College’s erudite founder might have put it, Knowledge is good, but not good enough. Psychology is better.


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