The surprising ways the place where you work affects your performance

IN THE summer of 2001, Sapna Cheryan was a new graduate interviewing for internships at tech firms in California’s Bay Area. At one company, she recalls, the workspace looked like a computer enthusiast’s basement hang-out, full of action figures and Nerf guns, with a soda-can model of the Golden Gate Bridge. To her, it seemed designed to promote an exclusive conception of the firm’s ideal employee. As a young woman of colour, she felt unwelcome, even alienated. She accepted a place at another company – one with a workspace that was bright and inviting.

Five years later, Cheryan’s next move was to Stanford University in California to start a PhD investigating how physical cues in our environment affect how we think and feel. She is among a growing number of psychologists and cognitive scientists whose research challenges the idea that the brain is like a computer. Computers are indifferent to their surroundings: a laptop works the same in a fluorescent-lit office or a leafy park. The same isn’t true of the human brain. In fact, Cheryan and others have found its performance to be exquisitely sensitive to the context in which it operates.

This research seems especially relevant right now. During the pandemic, many of us were abruptly forced to work and learn in different surroundings, and the effect of place on cognition came into sharp focus. As some of us return to offices and schools, we have an opportunity to reimagine these spaces in accordance with what researchers have learned. If we seize it, we could be in for some big changes.

Inspired by her own experiences, Cheryan’s research focuses on one particular aspect of the physical environment, what psychologists call cues of belonging. These are signals embedded in a space that communicate to occupants that they are welcome there – or not. In one experiment, Cheryan and her colleagues commandeered a space in Stanford University’s computer science building and created what they called a stereotypical classroom and a non-stereotypical classroom. The former was filled with Star Trek and Star Wars posters, books of science-fiction and cans of fizzy drink. The latter featured nature posters, literary novels and bottles of water.

After just a few minutes in the stereotypical room, male undergraduates expressed a high level of interest in pursuing computer science. Female students were less interested. But their interest increased markedly – and actually exceeded that of men – after spending time in the non-stereotypical room. Subsequent research by Cheryan found that female students exposed to a non-stereotypical virtual classroom were more likely to predict they would perform well in computer science courses than those exposed to a stereotypical one. Male students tended to predict they would succeed regardless of which room they encountered. That’s important. “We know from past work in psychology that how well you expect to do in a certain environment can determine how you actually perform,” she said in a TEDx talk.

Cheryan, who is now at the University of Washington in Seattle, calls the phenomenon “ambient belonging” and believes we rapidly develop this sense of fitting in or not “even from a cursory glance at a few objects”. More recently, she has explored how spaces might be designed to make a wider range of people feel they belong. The key, she maintains, is not to eliminate stereotypes, but to diversify them – to convey the message that people from many different backgrounds can thrive in a given setting. Building on this idea, her university revamped its computer science lab, applying a fresh coat of paint, hanging a variety of artworks and arranging the seating to encourage more social interaction. Five years later, the proportion of undergraduate computer science degrees earned by women there rose to 32 per cent – higher than at any other flagship public university in the US.

“How well you expect to do in an environment can determine how you actually perform”

To help people think effectively, a workplace doesn’t just need cues of belonging, it also needs cues of identity. These are tangible signs and signals we arrange around us to support our self-conception. They do things like advertise our enthusiasms, hobbies and achievements, express a creative streak or a quirky sense of humour, or simply remind us of our loved ones. Such displays are sometimes aimed at informing others of who we are – or who we would like to be – but often they are intended for a more intimate audience: ourselves. When researchers examined the workspaces of people in a variety of jobs, from engineers and estate agents to event planners and creative directors, they found that about a third of the cues of identity were visible only to their owners. That rose to 70 per cent for objects whose stated purpose was to remind their owners of personal goals and values.

Why would we need such reminders? Our sense of self may feel stable and solid, but it is in fact quite fluid and dependent on the external world for its shape. People commonly experience this when travelling in a foreign country where the unfamiliar environment can create a pleasurable but exhausting sense of discombobulation. In our day-to-day lives, we need to cultivate a steady sense of identity to function effectively, and the personal objects we place around us help achieve this.

Cues of identity serve another purpose too. Each of us has not one but many identities, such as worker, student, sibling, spouse, parent or friend. Signals from the environment we are currently in function to bring one of these personas to the fore, with real effects on our thinking and behaviour, says psychologist Daphna Oyserman at the University of Southern California. Her research suggests that whichever identity is salient in the moment influences both what we pay attention to and what we choose to do. In a striking example of this, one study found that cues reminding Asian American girls of their ethnicity improved their scores on maths tests, whereas cues that reminded them of their gender undermined their performance. For all of us, the objects on which our eyes rest each day reinforce what we are doing in that place, in that role.

A related feature of our workspaces concerns a sense of ownership. When we enter a space that feels like it is ours, a host of psychological and even physiological changes ensues. These effects were first observed in studies of home advantage, the phenomenon in which athletes tend to win more and bigger victories when playing on their own fields, courts and stadiums. Studies show that, on home turf, teams play more aggressively and their members (both male and female) exhibit higher levels of testosterone, a hormone associated with the expression of social dominance. But home advantage isn’t limited to sports. Researchers have discovered that when people occupy spaces that they consider their own, they feel more confident and capable. They are also more efficient and productive, less distractible and they advance their own interests more forcefully and effectively.

“People feel more confident and capable in spaces they consider their own”

Benjamin Meagher at Hope College, Michigan, has an intriguing idea to explain this: the place itself helps us think. His research indicates that our mental and perceptual processes operate more efficiently on home turf, with less need for effortful self-control. Meagher hypothesises that the mind works better because it doesn’t do all the work – it gets an assist from the structure embedded in its environment, structure that marshals useful information, supports effective habits and routines, and restrains unproductive impulses. Our cognition is distributed across the entire setting, he argues.

Empowered office

With ownership comes control. A sense of control over how a workspace looks and functions increases performance too. Psychologists Craig Knight, then at the University of Exeter, UK, and Alex Haslam at the University of Queensland, Australia, have demonstrated how powerful this effect can be. They got volunteers to perform a set of tasks in four different environments: a bare, minimalist office; an enriched office decorated with posters and potted plants; an empowered office, arranged by participants as they liked; and a disempowered office, in which their chosen arrangement had been rearranged in front of them without consent.

In the minimalist office, participants were lackadaisical and invested little effort in their assigned work. They were similarly unproductive in the disempowered office, and also reported negative feelings such as anger and unhappiness. Participants worked harder and were more productive in the enriched office. However, they performed best in the empowered office, completing about 15 per cent more work than in the enriched office and 30 per cent more than in the bare office. The size of such effects is large enough to make employers take notice: given the right surroundings, three people could accomplish almost as much as four. It is particularly relevant to employers experimenting with hot-desking, in which workers don’t have a dedicated space of their own, but grab an available one when they arrive at the office.

Another workplace trend, the open-plan office, poses a further environmental challenge to effective thinking. The brain evolved to continually monitor its immediate surroundings lest nearby sounds or movements signal danger to be avoided or an opportunity to be seized. In other words, we are easily distracted – and open-plan offices are teeming with distractions. It is nearly impossible, for example, to prevent our gaze from darting towards a novel object or one in motion. Our eyes are especially drawn towards faces, and our brains automatically prioritise processing them, even when we are trying to focus on a page or a screen. What’s more, we become emotionally aroused when we feel we are being observed. All this visual monitoring and processing uses up considerable mental resources, leaving less brainpower for our work.

Then there is noise. Any sounds may grab our attention, but speech is particularly distracting because, whether or not we want to be listening, our brains try to work out the meaning. Background speech is processed by the same brain regions we employ to do things like analysing data or writing a report. Research shows that it can drastically reduce our performance on such tasks. The sort of one-sided conversation resulting from a colleague speaking on the phone is especially distracting because our brains constantly try to predict when the speakers will pause or resume conversation and what they will say next. Lauren Emberson at the University of British Columbia, Canada, has found that people’s verbal and motor skills are even more impaired by hearing such “halfalogues” than when they can hear both sides of a conversation.

More troubling still is the finding that open-plan environments may not actually promote creative interactions – one rationale often used to promote them. Researchers use a device called a sociometer to measure patterns of physical movement and social interaction among co-workers. Worn around the neck like an ID badge, it collects precise data about who talks to whom, where and for how long. Their surprise finding is that people are less likely to have face-to-face interactions in open-plan offices than in more private workspaces.

According to the brain-as-computer model, none of these environmental factors should matter – but because we are humans, they do. The way we use our spaces was profoundly disrupted by a pandemic that shuttered offices and schools and confined many people to their homes for months at a time. As we re-emerge, we have an opportunity to improve our workspaces: to fill them with cues of belonging and identity, to imbue them with a sense of ownership and control, and to provide more privacy. In short, we can make them better places to think.

Collective thinking

Human thought is highly sensitive to context, and one of the most powerful contexts is the presence of other people. Thinking may feel like a solo activity – like something we do solely inside our own heads – but an emerging perspective in neuroscience and psychology proposes that it is fundamentally a social process. According to this view, our brains evolved to think with people, to teach them, to argue and to exchange stories. As a consequence, when we think socially, we think differently, and often better, than when we think alone.

Until recently, researchers wishing to investigate the role of social interaction on cognition have been hampered by technical constraints. Brain imaging using functional MRI all but required them to examine an individual in seclusion, shut inside an MRI machine. Now that is changing. With technologies such as electroencephalography (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) we can study multiple people’s brains as they interact in naturalistic settings – making deals, playing games or simply talking to one another. Using these tools has uncovered persuasive evidence for the interactive brain hypothesis: the premise that when people interact socially, their brains engage different neural and cognitive processes than when those same people are thinking or acting on their own.

For example, a study employing fNIRS compared the brain activity of people playing poker against another person or a computer. The areas of the brain involved in generating a “theory of mind” – inferring the mental state of another individual – were active when competing with a human, but dormant when matching wits with a machine. In fact, play against a human produced a distinctively different pattern of brain activity. More brain regions were activated, and they manifested a higher degree of connectivity with one another.

Other studies have found that areas of the brain involved in planning and anticipation, and in feeling empathy, are more active when we are playing against a human rather than a computer. Brain regions associated with reward also show stronger stimulation when we play – and especially when we win – against a human opponent.

Social life and the life of the mind are often viewed as distinct realms, or even as being in opposition. This body of research offers a different vision, one in which the irrepressible sociability of our species lies at the heart of human intelligence.


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