How You’re Influenced by Your Environment

Our physical environment from what we see, smell and feel influence our behaviour and decisions more than we think.

What We See

What we see has a significant and subconscious effect on how we make decisions, according to a set of tests by Stanford university. In one test, each participant was given $10 and asked to decide how much they were willing to give to a partner. If the offer would be too low for the partner, neither person would receive money.

While people exposed to neutral pictures (objects such as kites and toothbrushes) usually split the money equally, only 33% of those shown business-related objects, such as briefcases and boardroom tables, did the same. And the same result was found in every other test done. When exposed to business-related objects before making a decision, people were more competitive and less cooperative.

But Why?

When asked why, the participants denied that seeing business-related objects had influenced their decisions. But Christian Wheeler, a researcher on the project, disagreed. He said that when trying to figure out how to behave, we look to outside cues to guide our behaviour- especially if we’re not sure what’s expected of us. And when there aren’t many obvious clues, we’ll take anything to show us how to behave.



Feel and Smell

The same happens for things we feel and smell. For example, we’re more likely to judge a new person’s character as “warm and friendly” when holding a hot drink than a cold one- even after having had the same information about them beforehand. On top of this, we tend to be noticeably cleaner and better organised when subjected to a subtle background smell of cleaning liquid.

Therapist Mark Tyrrell said that this fast and subconscious decision making process has evolved to keep us safe. By “thin-slicing”, or generalising a small part of what we experience, we can then quickly decide how to repond to a situation and what behaviour to adopt. Perhaps if we would take the time to analyse what’s really going on, we’d simply run out of time.

To conclude, our physical environments subconsciously shape our decisions and how we behave. Especially in new, unknown environments, we’ve evolved to quickly hone in on outside clues from objects, smells and sensations to understand how best to behave.



Annie Lennon

Writer with an insatiable curiosity for people, facts and places. Currently interested in learning more about making our way towards a blue economy.