Are Calm Environments Restorative? It Depends

If you’re an anxious person or a big worrier, you might benefit from taking a walk in a busy urban setting rather than a peaceful park, according to new research published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Your level of self-control is higher in an environment that matches your personality type.

A study, published by Merrie Brucks, Eckert Professor of Marketing at the University of Arizona Eller College of Management, and Kevin Newman, an assistant professor at Providence College in Rhode Island and an Eller doctoral graduate, challenges the common cultural belief about calm environments and could be beneficial to urban planners, designers and marketing and advertising executives.

A key variable in the study was participants’ levels of neuroticism, which in this context differs from the psychiatric meaning.

“In modern psychology theory, neuroticism is one of the five traits used to characterize normal personality. It refers to a person’s ability to remain emotionally stable when faced with potential stressors. People who are higher in neuroticism are more emotionally reactive to ambiguous or relatively minor negative situations,” Brucks said.

The researchers found that people tend to refresh their minds more in environments that fit with their personalities.

“Imagine someone with a neurotic personality, like the prototypical Woody Allen character. If you put him in a forest, it could be off-putting rather than rejuvenating,” Newman said.

Interior and exterior spaces, photos, video and sound — both in a retail location and online — could affect consumer personalities as well.

“This is particularly important to marketers concerned with customer service relationships,” Brucks said. “If you know the personality types of your target markets, you can adjust your physical and online environments accordingly.”

Providing environmentally compatible cues, such as meeting places, may be one way to support the goals of customer relationship management.

“Meeting and working in environmentally compatible environments could improve decision-making performance, leading to satisfaction with the relationship and increasing comfort level with the relationship,” Brucks said. “Furthermore, the third study of our paper shows that the pictures and words in advertisements can also effectively cue environments.”

The correlation between environment and self-control could have implications related to health outcomes, also. For example, the researchers say people may make healthier food choices if they choose environments that match their personality type.

“This is also relevant for marketers of products related to self-control, such as exercise equipment, healthy foods and gym memberships.” Brucks said. “Consumers may be more successful in buying and using these products and services if the appropriate environments are cued.”

As an example, Brucks said that exercise bikes may come with programs meant to stimulate a nice ride in the country, but people who are more neurotic might do better by seeing a stimulating mountain-bike ride through rough terrain.

Studies show that Americans have shifted toward higher levels of neuroticism in recent decades, Newman said.

The study is online now and will appear in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

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