Choice Architects

“… man's sense of space is closely related to his sense of self, which is an intimate transaction with his environment”

-Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, 1966

'Choice architects’ are professionals that have nothing to do with architecture as we traditionally know it. Nevertheless their work is of interest for architecture because it confirms that with interdisciplinary collaboration it is possible to design behavioural outcomes and to suggest how people may act. Studying this new field incites to resume the discussion of the role of space in human behaviour—a topic that was suddenly abandoned in the field of architecture with the rise of semiotics and capitalist Postmodernism during the eighties.

In 2008 Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein coined the term ‘choice architecture’ as part of the field of behavioural economics, a young but influential discipline that combines psychology and economy to study how people make choices based mostly on empirical research. As explained by Johnson et al. in their article ‘Beyond nudge’ for behavioural sciences a ‘choice architect’ is the professional that creates an environment where many features—noticed and unnoticed—can influence people’s decisions. The job of a choice architect is then to design sceneries that affect or nudge choices, which according to Thaler’s and Sustein’s research is to alter "people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options."

One of the best-known examples of nudging is the default option designed to preserve the status quo by avoiding an active decision, usually applied in consumer savings, organ donation or health decisions. Nudge theory today is silently operating in the economic and public policy domains of the UK and the US, affecting our everyday lives in a very subtle, but powerful, way. As nudge, architecture also unconsciously affects our behaviour. According to Johnson et. al., for choice architects ‘there is no neutral architecture’, no naive environment. But do architects actively consider the environment they design as not neutral? Can ‘traditional’ architects consciously influence how people act within the spaces they design?

Predicting and defining social behaviour has been a long-term, unfulfilled desire for architects, and was thoroughly explored during the 20th Century. The terms ‘architectural determinism’ and ‘social engineering’ were commonly used to describe Modern architecture’s intention to define social patterns without understanding their users, and was then reborn in the field of social sciences as ‘environmental behavioural studies’ during the 1960s.

The first published attempt to address these questions was made by Edward T Hall, a North American anthropologist who studied how space unconsciously affects behaviour and the way we speak. Hall states that we communicate with our bodies and with the way we move through space, and that our actions are constantly affected by the built environment. In his book ‘The Silent Language’ Hall argued that we react to architecture in everyday experiences, but we only become aware of it when our quotidian environment changes—usually by travelling abroad.

To analyse the patterns behind human interaction in space, Hall started by measuring American subjects in conversation. He defined four social distances or ‘space bubbles’ related to the type of social interaction and the distance between the bodies: intimate, personal, social and public. With his findings, Hall founded the field of ‘proxemics’, which seeks a better understanding of human behaviour in relation to the environment by combining social sciences and spatial awareness. From Hall’s point of view, if every culture has its own language, every culture has its own use of space.

In the book ‘The Hidden Dimension’ Hall observes that we live surrounded by space cues that we learned in childhood, mimicking our relatives as a silent part of our culture. These cues release unconscious responses that have meaning only in their contexts, creating a ‘spatial accent’. As nudge theory, space cues remain uncovered for most people until they learn to be aware of the politics behind choice design and space. In his writings, Hall called architects to use their power to plan communities by understanding the space cues that lie in every culture. For him—in contemporary behavioural economics terms—architects can produce a ‘spatial nudge’.

Dan Lockton in his article ‘Architecture, Urbanism, Design and Behaviour’ states that in Modern architectural discourse it is common to find architects declaring that their designs can define people’s lives. From Hall’s perspective, this process is not straightforward. Architecture does not determine behaviour, but it does have the power to trigger conduct. Alexi Marmot in her article ‘Architectural Determinism’ maintains that despite a broad behavioural literature from the social sciences, today there is limited knowledge about the behavioural outcomes of architecture. Other authors like Maurice Broady sustain that architects lack the intellectual discipline in social theory to achieve their social purposes. Broady stated in his article ‘Social Theory in Architectural Design’ that there is a need for rigorous teaching of social sciences in architecture schools in order to avoid ‘architecture determinism’ and to make students understand the space cues related to human behaviour creating knowledge-based designs.

After two decades of popularity, in the 1980s Hall’s theories and environmental studies vanished from architectural discussion, but today the potential of nudging using space cues and the development of choice architecture is an opportunity to restart this debate. Thaler and Sunstein in their article ‘Choice Architecture’ state that many buildings show the ‘failure of architecture to accommodate basic principles of human psychology’. With this observation they present a problem, but also an opportunity. A spatial nudge theory made through an interdisciplinary collaboration between architects, economists and social scientists is a possibility for the discipline to expand towards behavioural sciences and to regain relevance in the public domain, producing knowledge for design that actively improves people’s lives.