In the coming months, we’ll be running a series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries. Each week, our writers will focus on a trend that is meaningful to them, sharing anecdotes, opinions, and real-world illustrations of urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Trust.
Back in the fall of 2011, when my collaborators and I began planning an evening of hot chocolate, intimate confessions, and extreme hugging at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in New York City, some people seemed baffled. What did any of this have to do with the Lab’s mandate, which was to explore the future of cities?
The answer is that we were exploring one of the most important questions concerning urban life, one that is becoming increasingly urgent as we enter a century of environmental and social challenges: what makes people trust each other?
Trust matters to cities because it matters to life itself. Even though the modern, cosmopolitan city makes it easier than ever for us to retreat from each other, decades of research into human well-being have concluded that the most potent driver of happiness—more powerful than money or status—is the quality of our relationships with other people. Connected people sleep better at night. They are more able to tackle adversity. They live longer. They consistently report being happier.
Friends and family matter, but so do the relationships we have with everyone else in the city. Economist John Helliwell has found, for example, that the happiest neighborhoods and cities in Canada are those where people express the most trust in complete strangers. Meanwhile, neuroeconomist Paul Zak has demonstrated that trusting exchanges produce an immediate physiological reward: our brains effectively shower us with feel-good hormones when we play nice with others.
That’s great news, because trust is the bedrock on which cities—and civilizations—grow and thrive. They depend on our ability to trust people who look, dress, and act nothing like us to treat us fairly, to honor commitments and contracts, to consider our well-being along with their own, and most of all, to make sacrifices for the general good. Collective problems like pollution and climate change demand collective responses. The city is a shared project.
Yet we seem to have designed the cooperative impulse right out of some urban landscapes: people who live in car-dependent sprawl report being less likely to hang out with neighbors, less likely to volunteer, less likely to vote, and less likely to rise up and protest than their urban cousins. Can design help us reverse this trend?
During Love Night, we tried to engineer an experience that would nudge participants to feel and behave with more trust for total strangers. We put on soft lighting. We invited our friends at Project for Public Spaces to project images of acts of public affection. Artist Ryan Brennan installed posters inviting people to “un-stranger” each other. Students from the Fashionable Technology Lab at Parsons The New School for Design used heat-sensitive material to create a giant “love rug” and dozens of shirts that changed color upon body contact. Psychologist Emanuele Castano staged a hot-cocoa booth where free drinks came in pairs—on the condition that people hand their second cup to a stranger. And then Paul Zak challenged everyone in the Lab to spend the course of the evening hugging strangers. (The video of the event, above, will give you a sense of how it went.) Hundreds of us surprised ourselves, reaching out in a huggy, smiley extravaganza.
It all felt frivolous, even silly, at the time. However, we were able to record a remarkable shift in thinking during the course of the evening. As always at the New York Lab, visitors were encouraged to play Urbanology, a group game that surveys participants about their values using hundreds of questions relating to urban lifestyle, livability, sustainability, transportation and economics. By the end of Love Night, Urbanology players seemed to be asking for a significantly different kind of city.
Here’s an example: one Urbanology question asked: “Will you raise the minimum wage for people working through the night?” During the first couple of months at the lab, 90 percent of players had answered “no.” But on Love Night, that tough sentiment was turned on its head. Eighty percent of players said “yes” to this question of fairness and empathy. The change ran through the spectrum of values-based answers. Love Night participants voted with more concern for lifestyle, livability, and sustainability, and less for fast transportation and wealth-maximization.
This piece of “party experimentalism” may not be fodder for a peer-reviewed journal in psychology. But it did suggest that sustained positive interactions with strangers have the power to alter our choices about the kind of city we want to live in. What kinds of choices would we make in real life if we felt more trust and empathy towards our fellow city dwellers? Would we vote, spend, live and move as though the city really is a shared project?
It’s too urgent a question not to pursue. Let’s test streetscapes for their effect on feelings towards strangers. Let’s examine how different ways of moving can influence social interactions. Let’s keep experimenting with the design of homes, neighborhoods, and entire cities in order to find new ways to build the empathic civilization. In other words, let’s discover just what it takes to truly build trust.