The built environment shapes our behaviour profoundly – piazzas and park benches promote unplanned encounters between strangers whereas car-friendly streets have the opposite effect, the efficiency of speedy travel promoting “streets as corridors” over “streets as sociable space”.
What’s true at the level of cities also applies within buildings, including student residences. This has been investigated in the past, one famous example being Leon Festinger’s 1950 study that suggested students formed stronger friendships with people whose doors they routinely walked by. Festinger argued that the familiarity coming from minor encounters ripened into friendship, but this wasn’t directly measured, and it’s possible that students who already knew each other had rooms closer together.
In a new study, Matthew Easterbrook and Vivian Vignoles tested whether building layout really can have a powerful influences on student friendships. They recruited 462 students from 13 halls of residence and asked them to record how often they met by chance with other residents in their halls over the first week of term. This serendipity turned out to be very important: more chance meetings led to stronger interpersonal bonds with other residents, not just that week but also six and even ten weeks later. Moreover, more chance meetings with other residents went hand in hand with greater feelings of wellbeing later on.
The researchers next looked at what aspects of the building increased these chance encounters. You may be unsurprised that the presence of lounges and other common social areas had a significant effect. More surprising perhaps was that their impact was matched by another factor: a lack of en-suite toilets, which led students to bump into each other when responding to nature’s call. This suggests that mere encounters, regardless of their form, are a foundation for strangers to feel relaxed and connected to one another. My student halls had shared toilets, and looking back, the greetings we exchanged while clutching a roll of toilet paper made it easier to let go of any pretences and feel more relaxed around each other.
Common facilities may not always be a good; where relationships are strained, forced contact could worsen things. This student demographic are actively seeking connections with their new peers, and in this context, individuals are better off in an interdependent and even inconvenient setup, than in a self-sufficient but atomised one. What impresses itself on me is the evidence of a general rule: the more we control and plan our encounters, the less space there is for the chance interaction, as true of our accelerating cities as it is for the environments in which we work, sleep, or study.
Easterbrook, M., Vignoles, V. (2014). When friendship formation goes down the toilet: Design features of shared accommodation influence interpersonal bonds and well-being British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12062
Is there a psychologist in the building?