Green, Grey and the Good City: learning from Berlin

by Charles Montgomery on

On a blustery, rainy July day, more than 40 people showed up to join an urbanist experiment at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in Berlin. I was amazed to see them. For one thing, the weather was miserable. For another, none of them knew exactly what they were about to be subject to. This, I learned, was typical. Berliners are up for it, especially if they suspect they will get a chance to argue about their city at some pont. Still, I wonder if they would have showed up if I had told them that we were going to subject some of them to extreme physical discomfort.

Here’s what we were up to, and why:

Last year at the BGLab in NYC, Colin Ellard and I ran a series of tours that tested the emotional effect of public space on participants. Among other things, we found that people reported being happier when they were exposed to plants and trees than when they stood in non-green environments. This was not a surprise. Decades of research has shown that exposure to nature makes us feel more calm, focussed, and able to cope. But recently, some studies in environmental psychology have suggested that exposure to nature does not just make us feel good: it can alter our attitude towards other people. It can make us feel more social, more trusting, and more generous.

If nature actually makes us nicer to each other, then the implications for urban design are huge. Berlin BGLab team member Corrine Rose agreed, and let me run an informal experiment to explore these concepts. Of course, I am no research scientist, and the BGLab is not a research institute. But it is a great place to test and talk about new ideas. It brings together willing, curious participants, and offers resources and logistical support for informal experimentation.

In the field

The plan was to see if two radically different sites would prompt markedly different behaviour in a couple of controlled altruism tests inspired by game theory. One test was easy. The other potentially excrutiating.

I chose two sites near the lab in Prenzlauerberg. The Green Site, Weinbergsweg Park, was lush, calm, and featured a pleasant view down a gentle slope to a broad pond. It was almost a caricature of the prospect-refuge view favored by evolutionary psychologists and landscape architects. The Grey Site was a triangle of concrete and cobblestone, hemmed in by car traffic, bike lanes, and six-story-high buildings on all sides of the intersection of Torstrasse and Schönhauser Allee.

After a short introduction at the lab, we split into two groups. Peter and I led one group to the Green Site. Constantine and Kristoff led the other group to the Grey Site.

First, we asked participants to focus on the landscape around them for a few minutes, and write down words describing how it made them feel. The purpose was simply to immerse them in the landscape.

Then we invited them to play what’s commonly known as the Ultimatum Game. This is a simple exercise that involves an exchange between two anonymous players. Player A is offered 10 Euros for participating. The catch? She has to decide how many of those Euros she will share with an anonymous partner. That partner, Player B, then gets to decide whether to accept or decline the offer. If he declines, neither player gets anything. This game, conducted using a system of coded envelopes, was meant to test generosity, trust and cooperation.

Last, we invited a couple of volunteers to engage in a Cold Pressor Test. (This was a suggestion from neuroeconomist Paul Zak, who encouraged me to depart from the standard money-trading tests.) We brought out a bucket, a sack of ice, and two litres of water. Each volunteer had to stick her hand into the ice water up to the wrist. For every 10 seconds she could hold her hand in that water, we promised to donate 1 Euro to a good community charity in Berlin. (We delayed naming the charity until the test was over, but told participants that it worked to build community and educate Berliners.)

The Cold Pressor was a huge hit. Up until that point, we had banned talk between participants, in order to reduce social effects on the Ultimatum Game. But now, people started to cheer on the volunteers as they grimaced in discomfort. At the Green Site, an American participant even began coaching the cold press “victims” to focus on warm memories.

Since we only used the Cold Pressor Test on two people per site, the sample size was really too small to offer useful comparisons. But it was heartening to see that at both sites, our brave volunteers endured some nasty discomfort in order to raise money for a good cause. In total, the four volunteers endured 523 seconds of cold, raising 52 Euros for the Prinzessengarten, a cool community garden I’ll get back to later.

Word cloudiness

The two sites elicited remarkably different emotional observations from participants, judging from the word clouds they made.

Participants at the Green Site were generous with their words. Seven of twenty wrote that the site was calm. Peaceful, relaxed, quiet and free were repeated several times. More than one person wrote safe, open and refreshing. Other words: childlike, thoughtful, balanced, leisurely, easy and bored. Almost all the words were positive.

Participants at the Grey Site shared fewer words. Two wrote: helplessness.  Other words included: isolation, nostalgia, distance, sadness, excess, loud, hatred, lack of calm, nervous, vulnerable.

Clearly the sites made people feel differently. But did they make them behave differently?

Culture vs. aesthetics

Given the markedly different emotional responses, and given the emerging literature on nature exposure and altruism, we expected the group immersed in the Green Site to be more cooperative and generous. Indeed, in the Ultimatum Game, A Players on the Green Site seemed to do just that. On average, they shared 5.8 Euros with their partners, while A Players over at the Grey Site shared only 4.9 Euros.

But then the results get complicated. While several offers at the Green Site were rejected by the B Players, every single offer at the Grey Site was accepted. Since a rejected offer means neither player getting anything, the group at the Grey Site actually made more money than the group at the Green Site. They were more cooperative, and thus reaped higher rewards.

What was going on? When we looked at the data, we saw a curious pattern.

At the Green Site, the offers were all over the map. Some people generously offered all 10 of their Euros. But two people offered only 1 Euro—and those offers were understandably rejected by players who told me later that they wanted to punish their stingy anonymous partners.

But over at the Grey Site, almost every Player A offered an even 5 Euros—half their money. (One Player A offered 4 Euros.) And every single Player B accepted the offer. I was at a loss to explain this uniform cooperativeness until, during our discussion back at the lab, one of the participants shouted out:

“This is very German behaviour!” By which she meant that people were playing in a way that reflected cautious logic and an adherence to an egalitarian social norm.

This struck me as a rather broad stereotype, but most Germans I spoke to agreed with it: “Yes, that’s the German way!” they assured me.

When I probed the participants further, it emerged that almost all the participants at the Grey Site were native German speakers, while the Green Site featured a broad mix of languages and nationalities—a methodological error introduced by our translators during the crush at the start of the workshop.

I had failed to ensure a random selection in the groups!

So what did we learn in our non-scientific exercise? Well, we might imagine that the terrible, rainy weather reduced the altruistic effects in the green environment. The park, usually full of children and sunbathers, was desolate. But this is mere speculation. I think the most powerful lesson is that social and cultural effects can overwhelm environmental effects on altruism. The most important factor in predicting people’s behaviour in our Ultimatum Game was not a person’s location, but whether or not she was German! Members of the more-German group were more likely to offer 5 Euros, and Players B were more likely to accept that offer, than members of the more international team.

I checked the academic literature on the Ultimatum Game. One meta-study of ultimatum game experiments around the world found that a player’s nationality did not predict the offer she might make as a Player A, but it did predict whether Player B would accept or reject the offer. No, the study did not make a specific claim about Germans!

I hope that academics will continue to pursue these themes in rigorously controlled experiments. But I am intrigued by the upshot of our imperfect game, which is that  cultural systems can overpower the influence of aesthetics. Yes, green views make us feel good, and perhaps also alter our behaviour. But the nature effect is not as powerful as the influences of culture.

This doesn’t mean that landscape design does not matter for sociability. City spaces can speed us up or slow us down. They can nudge us together or pull us away from each other. Berlin, with its juxtaposition of socialist, market, ancient and modern architectures and landscapes, offers plenty of evidence of this. I’ll explore that in my next post.