At risk of running late to class, my pace twitched between a walk and a run as I traversed the last stretch of road before the turn-in to campus. A steep incline had the path and I pinned between it and the traffic to the right. As we neared the turn, it gave up on itself, trailing off into a flow of soft, green grass.
Ahead of me, the footpath towed a string of students along its doglegged trajectory. To my left, the bare grass shimmered with an infinite number of shorter trails to our shared destination. While the possible routes were unlimited, they weren’t defined and so, until today, I had unconsciously left my mind to follow the path of least resistance: the one marked out for me.
My lateness made me question this habitual behaviour and I veered off, cutting a grassy hypotenuse to the path’s right angle. I reunited with the walkway where it made sense to do so. This miniscule moment in my day may seem like a non-event. But, if you’ve ever been swarmed by wasps, or attacked by mosquitos at sunset, you’ll know tiny things can have a powerful accumulative impact.
The psychological trick behind indirect paths
Winding footpaths might not seem like a big deal. As I mentioned above, there are infinite route variations possible, and the destination of each pedestrian is different. What’s direct for one might be indirect for another. Modes of transportation differ too. Whether on a footpath, or anywhere else in life, some vehicles are thoroughly unsuited to taking the path less travelled.
Apart from avoiding photo-worthy fails, the way you use these one-size-fits-all paths is important; particularly considering some of them are designed with a premeditated purpose in mind. In the field of criminology known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), paths are often used as a form of subtle programming. This discipline employs a variety of design features to topple the crutches that unwittingly support criminal activity.
Meet the crime triangle
Satisfying this simple structure is all it takes for crime to occur; and it’s a shape that’s easier to unintentionally create than it is to intentionally break apart. You do only need to sever one of its edges to drastically reduce the chance of criminal activity occurring. But, in a world made of more than just triangles, that’s easier said than done.
CPTED, with its arsenal of strategies, takes an impressive swipe at the “suitable location” side of the triangle. Subtlest of their weaponry is the humble footpath. Researchers have found that, if there’s a path through an area, people tend to follow it. These walkways are often laid out so as not to follow the direct trajectory you would choose for yourself, but to send you on extra winds and bends. This is neither accident, nor design flaw. In many cases it does have an intentional aesthetic appeal (more on that later). But most importantly, on a subtle, unconscious level, it gets you rule-following. From this basis of generalised compliance, more targeted design elements are added, gently and unobtrusively navigating you into willing, unconscious controllability.
Disney World: it’s relevant and creepier than you might think
“Control strategies are embedded in both environmental features and structural relations. In both cases control structures and activities have other functions which are highlighted so that the control function is overshadowed. Nonetheless, control is pervasive. For example, virtually every pool, fountain, and flower garden serves both as an aesthetic object and to direct visitors away from, or towards, particular locations.”
The space under discussion in the above quote is Disney World. Back in 1997, criminologists, Clifford Shearing and Philip Stenning, wrote an article that slips beneath the fun veneer of Disney World to reveal a tightly spun maze of interconnected processes and design features, united under the decidedly Orwellian title of “compliant control.”
The authors explain:
“the Disney order is no accidental by-product. Rather, it is a designed-in feature that provides — to the eye that is looking for it, but not to the casual visitor — an exemplar of modern private corporate policing.”
While the environment is designed with policing in mind, for it to really work, it must serve a genuine dual-purpose of creating beauty, caring for the safety of visitors and helping them enjoy their experience. The powerful compliance-creating effect comes when the control function is embedded into the framework; a form of architectural subliminal messaging.
“A critical consequence of this process of embedding control in other structures is that control becomes consensual. It is effected with the willing cooperation of those being controlled.”
Put simply: we become compliant in our own mental entrapment. While creating order at a theme park certainly isn’t a bad thing (imagine the chaos if they didn’t), there is a potential danger here. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, French philosopher, Michel Foucault described the deep, penetrative power these complicit control structures have on the human psyche.
“This architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short… the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.”
In their functions, Disney World and prisons are miles apart. But they share an unsettling similarity in the ethos behind their structural design.
The psychological risk of blind path-following
While this is harnessed for good in the field of CPTED, the effects can penetrate further than intercepting and disarming criminal intent; especially if you never had such intent to begin with. The mindless path-following habit sets a precedent in your brain for following rules and pre-determined paths without analysis or questioning. A dangerous pattern to set for yourself.
At Disney World, Shearing and Stenning warn the control structures are unbound by the walls of the park (whether this is intentional or not is hard to say):
“Visitor participation in the production of order within Disney World goes beyond the more obvious control examples we have noted so far… Considerable care is taken to ensure that every feature of Disney World reflects a positive view of the American Way, especially its use of, and reliance on, technology… Disney World acts as a giant magnet attracting millions of Americans and visitors from other lands who pay to learn of the wonders of American capitalism.”
What visitors are complicit in programming themselves with at Disney Land, they take home with them too.
Back to the uni campus…
To be clear, I’m not suggesting the university has built paths to create this compliant mindset. There’s no crazy conspiracy theory here. What I’m illustrating with the Disney World example is that, whether an environment has been designed to affect us psychologically or not, it will. While Disney has an agenda behind their park design, even with no underlying motive at all, environmental structures will still affect your brain the same way. When people follow paths because they are paths, without applying their own logical reasoning, they become compliant, on both an individual and group level.
The takeaway from this is not to place blame anywhere, worry about these design features, or invent conspiracy theories about the businesses and institutions we visit every day. Even Foucault didn’t suggest that these power structures were inherently wrong. Rather, they are simply a part of our reality. The hackability of our brains is a challenge to be faced. But, once you’re aware of it, you can find ways to reverse-engineer the process.
The world needs path breakers
Following the paths laid out for you by others can see you leaving rubbish on the ground because everyone else has, not putting extra work into a group project because no-one else is, not paying attention to cries for help because it’s not your business or you’ve been told not to. If you think that last one is extreme, check out the infamous Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience.
Blind path following can turn you into a bystander. And, in the presence of wrongdoing, the idea of an “innocent bystander” becomes a contradiction in terms. Non-action is an action all its own, one that entails a special kind of culpability. Bystanders go with the flow of structures and systems that are outdated, detrimental and sometimes even dangerous. They accept less than ideal ways of doing things because it’s the status quo.
Sometimes the path you see has been put there because it’s the best way forward. But reality – and therefore truth – is always shifting. Newtonian physics was once our best way of understanding the forces at work in our universe. As was sacrifice to gods when we were desperate for a bountiful harvest. In the eloquent words of physician and philosopher of science, Georges Canguilhem:
“A mutation in current conceptions of scientific truth brings elements from past and present into new relations… Such recurrent history therefore distinguishes those elements of the past that have led up to contemporary truths… and those false paths, errors, mistakes or illusions which are not continuous with the present and so must be discarded.”
The ideal paths aren’t static, they’re shifting, just as nature and human understanding shift. If you have the flexibility and open-mindedness to observe and keep pace with the constant flow of reality, you’ll equip yourself with the powerful ability to critically examine your environment and your industry for paths that work better for your desired destination. Sometimes a revolutionary new way is there in the environment around you, obscured and overshadowed by the prevailing pattern.
There are whole systems in our world that need changing. And the idea of stepping off the beaten track to forge your own can seem overwhelming. Perhaps the easiest way to make this a habit is to start with your simple, everyday encounters with the most mundane of things: footpaths. Because small things can have a breathtakingly large impact when they add up.