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  • Writer's pictureBen Edwards

How can an evolutionary perspective help us understand environmental perception and human behaviour?

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

Humans, whether aware of it or not, are prone to some reactions to the environment that, without an understanding of their origin, might seem a little strange. For instance, why are we uncharacteristically content wandering around infamously unappealing places like casinos or shopping centres, drawn to the seats in the far back corners of restaurants, or oddly lethargic around softly glowing floor lamps?

How an evolutionary perspective can help us understand environmental perception and human behaviour

Although it may be a tough pill to swallow, we are, in all the ways that matter, very similar to animals; shaped the same way a lizard or an eagle has, slowly defined by the environment they surround themselves with over millions of years. But while the savannahs and the skies haven’t changed, humans live amongst an urban world that’s dramatically different from the one where our ancestors spent their most formative years evolving, and haven’t had time to biologically adapt (Quartz & Sejnowski, 2002).

Evolutionary Perspective Background.

The crux of the theory of evolution is that any organism responds to the environment it inhabits by becoming more and more efficient over generations. Those with advantageous traits outlast those without, with the ultimate goal of survival and reproduction. Humans followed this process, and it’s thought that our psychology evolved alongside it in order to direct our innate drivers towards the things that aid our survival, drivers which persist today (Cosmides & Tooby, 2013). Our behaviour, environmental perception (i.e. the way we perceive our surroundings) and visual perception especially, are also dominated by the ancestral wiring of our essentially stone age brains, visually trained to natural rhythms and patterns (Salingaros, 2015). We are honed to positively evaluate and efficiently digest the likes of savannahs, forests or waterfalls. Certain advantageous conditions, spotting a water source for instance, would trigger positive physiological responses such as a feeling of pleasure (Velarde et al., 2007), hence the multitude of benefits that biophilic design can provide. If you would like to learn more about it, please refer to the following article for a brief overview:

Between Lights, Curves & Wall Hugging.

The focus of this article is on some of those responses that in modern context can manifest as some of our less intuitively understood behaviours (Buttazzoni et al., 2022). This begs the questions, would you expect a grizzly bear to behave normally in an open plan office? A flamingo in a 2 bed Georgian conversion? What this means for us is that there are certain situations that we come across in everyday life that mimic the circumstances our hunter gatherer ancestors found themselves in hundreds of thousands of years ago (Pati et al., 2016). Consider the following examples:

Why do we feel so relaxed when we are surrounded by floor spotlights adored by the more atmospheric restaurants?

Well, largely because the interior designers correctly intuit that they’ll make for a comfortable and relaxing atmosphere. Explained form an evolutionary perspective, this is because of the years we spent sitting around campfires that would be lit once it got dark in the lead up to sleep, therefore lighting that we perceive from under our eye level is relaxing (Frattura, 2022). These associations that we developed over millions of years signal to our bodies that it's time to sleep (Dana Lynn, 2014). On the other hand, lighting from above eye level signals daylight, and as such, activity, triggering a wakeful physiological state. The same applies to lighting temperature, where the colloquial talk of “warmer” light might be rooted, as campfires set the standard for mimicking warmth and fire with orange and red hues.

Why do we tell ourselves we’ll be in and out of a shopping center, only to find ourselves blissfully sleep-walking through the nicher aisles of homeware shops?

The answer might be at least partially explained by our past. We have a deep affinity for curves, it’s been found in numerous studies that being surrounded by gentle curving geometries seen in the likes of shopping centres can reduce aggressive behaviour, calm us down, and most importantly produce positive affect in the form of a pleasure response, the ideal scenario for encouraging spending (Ellard, 2015). This preference for curves seems to be written in our DNA, as we exhibit it even before we experience sharp objects in childhood, that would otherwise explain our repelling response to alien straight lines (Vartanian et al., 2013). It’s thought that, again, it was ancestral environments that embedded this preference, whether the soft curvature of the human body or the curves found throughout nature where, lest we forget, there are no straight lines. Our fondness of curves isn’t restricted to the bonnets of 1960’s porsche’s, but in the routes we take too. For instance, a winding path is far more alluring than a straight one, and it’s thought this is due to the suggestion that elements beneficial to survival might be waiting round the corner, a property of views known in environmental psychology as “mystery” (Joye, 2007). The lesser known and somewhat more exploitative use of this idea of pleasant anticipation however, is seen in the undulating corridors of casinos, luring unsuspecting punters to the places where the real money is won (lost), a tactic used in casino design for decades (Finlay et al., 2009).

Ever have that strange moment when you walk into a restaurant and have a compelling urge to sit anywhere but the middle, the sides gesturing you over with a subliminal wave?

For years we would need every trick to help survive amongst predators, and being aware of our surroundings was paramount. As mammals with forward facing eyes, having our backs to a wall gave us a huge advantage knowing nothing would be creeping up behind you (Appleton, 1975). As such we developed this fear minimising instinct that guides us away from the open central areas of spaces, and towards the edges, a “wall hugging” instinct of sorts known as thigmotaxis (Sussman & Hollander, 2021). The term was originally applied to animals like rats where they had observed the same behaviour as they navigate space. It’s more commonly known as the theory of prospect and refuge, which it’s consistent with, the only real differences being thigmotaxis is explained as a spatio-cognitive navigational tool, while prospect and refuge applies to the visual evaluation of spaces and its implication in preference and pleasure responses. If you would like to learn more about it, please refer to the following article for a brief overview:

Critical review & Empirical support.

The examples illustrated here through the psychological lens of evolution, suffer the same inherent fragility as all explanations of behavioural origins in that it’s significantly harder to prove than the behaviour itself. In other words, the origin is unfalsifiable (Gannon, 2002).

Evolutionary accounts of structure have poor standing without concomitant evolutionary accounts of behaviour, for instance it’s not enough for a giraffe to have a longer neck, the longer neck must facilitate a behaviour that aids survival, as genetic mutations interact with the environment through behaviours. But while abundant physical evidence supports the theory of evolution, behavioural adaptations are difficult to support empirically, even though they are symbiotically implicated in biological evolution itself.

Another criticism levied against the evolutionary basis of environmental perception in general is that it doesn’t account for individual development and the subtleties of genetic variation in specific behaviours, for instance why some people are more prone to the tiredness elicited by low level lighting, or some have an enhanced repulsion to straight lines. The neuro-scientific origin of our perceptual systems (i.e. that our visual perception is primed for visually navigating natural scenes efficiently through the likes of rapid gist extraction or peripheral vision) is easier to support than specific scenarios of modern behavioural responses.

Applications & Design Recommendations.

Recommended design applications for lighting may be to bear in mind the vertical positioning and colour temperature of lighting depending on the desired outcome. A spa won’t have the same experiential requirements as an office. For curves, while the current architectural maxim proposes straight lines, curves are more likely to seduce and sooth the inhabitant, so introduce them where sensible. This doesn’t have to replace the convenience of rectangular rooms but can exist in any scale from ornamentation to sweeping exteriors. When it comes to our propensity for wall hugging, maybe introduce more nooks and crannies, semi permeable partitions and increase the complexity of interiors. Bear in mind the placement of walls will frequently affect the movement of users in ways far deeper than just as a barrier. But most of all, bear in mind the psychological underpinnings of a vast amount of our perception and behaviour rests on the years spent in the wild, rather than the fraction since.


While the examples illuminated here are just to highlight some of the more immediate and relatable instances, the crux of this piece is to awaken the reader to the ancestral wiring we all exhibit on a daily basis. There are entire disciplines dedicated to the scope of these psychological quirks, and there are endless instances of behaviours shadowing a former time, some of which may be addressed in future articles. But as designers the message we must all recognise is that shaping our places and spaces with an eye towards past generations can facilitate the optimum conditions for human experience. Intuition guided successful design for centuries before science explained it, let it guide you again with an appreciation that humans are motivated by primordial desires for safety, survival and pleasure.

Ben Edwards profile image

Ben Edwards is an architectural designer turned environmental psychologist based in London. Far more fascinated by the myriad ways buildings affect us than the way they look guided him towards environmental psychology in 2020 and since towards an understanding of the sensitive and emotionally nourishing architecture we require. Currently working between research and design as a workplace consultant.


Hello. Thank you for stopping by, I hope you have enjoyed your reading! If you have any questions or feedback on this article, please don't hesitate to drop me a line on LinkedIn or via email.



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