People, Places, and Things

The psychology of design: How to create an environment in which you will thrive

Unfriendly Skies

Being in the wild blue yonder is no picnic.

Think the most unpleasant part of traveling by air is getting to the airport? Think again. Although getting to the airplane in most cities is no picnic, being airborne is much more stressful. Airplanes are among the least hospitable places you can visit – almost every element of the interior design sets human beings on edge.

As soon as you get to the airplane you give up control of your world – if tussling with the TSA and flight delays haven’t already forced you to acknowledge that there are forces more powerful than yourself. When you sink down into that uncomfortable passenger seat, you lose most of the ability to exercise your own free will. Sure, you can pick your movie, turn on and off your overhead light, and chose to read or not, but those sorts of decisions are insignificant compared to the opportunities you lose – such as the ability to determine the speed and direction of the aircraft, use the restroom whenever you want, or step outside for a change of pace. Human beings are more relaxed and happier when they have control over their environment.

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Part of that in-plane loss of control results in having to tolerate people being too close to you. When our personal space is compromised, so is our privacy– on a plane, your row-mates can even read along with you as you try to de-stress with the latest paperback thriller. Outside an airplane, when people have to be too close to others, they take what are called compensatory measures. An elevator trip is a fine example of a time when people are forced into uncomfortably tight quarters. To keep the tension levels down and everybody calm, people on an elevator avoid making eye contact or recognizing others are even there – conversations in elevators are rudimentary, at best. Conveniently, airplane seats prevent travelers from making easy eye contact with anyone except the flight attendants. On board conversations are notoriously unsuccessful.

The noises made by airplane engines are particularly disconcerting to human travelers. Their pitch and volume can often be annoying. In addition, the sounds that the airplane makes aren’t really rhythmic – and that unpredictability, even if it is readily explainable as an engine “changing gears,” induces stress.

The aircraft cabin is not pressurized to anything close to sea level and the environment becomes dry in the course of a flight. Being on an airplane is generally equivalent to being at an altitude of over a mile, and in those conditions alertness decreases for most passengers. Being de-hydrated also hinders our cognitive performance. Pawson and his research team recently learned that people who took water to exams and presumably drank it, thereby staying hydrated, got higher scores than people who didn’t who had the same level of general ability. Being in places with low relative humidity has also been linked to headaches, which doesn’t help when we’re doing thoughtful work or trying to get along with other people.

Ergonomic conditions are so bad for coach class airplane travelers that they result in psychological stress. The legroom and position of the tray table can make it difficult just to sit quietly, let alone work on a laptop.

So, what’s an air traveler to do? The suggestions that follow can ease the psychological discomfort of travelers in general, but passengers who are afraid to fly need clinical assistance.

  1. Listen to calming music you enjoy. Make sure your music selections have a rhythm slower than your resting heart rate (generally 50-70 beats per minute). If you Google “beats per minute,” you’ll find websites that can tell you about this aspect of your favorite music. Don’t try to create complete silence with earplugs etc. Your plan won’t work which will frustrate you – and silence is just as nerve racking for humans as the random airplane noises.
  2. Establish whatever control over your experience the FAA will allow. For example, if you bring an eye mask and cover your eyes while you nap, you decrease the odds that you’ll be disturbed by the flight attendants and other passengers.
  3. Don’t try to do thoughtful work as you fly – the air pressure and relative humidity inside the plane will insure you don’t work well, anyway – and knowing that you’re not performing as well as you might will frustrate you and amp up your stress levels.
  4. Look out the window at the clouds as you fly along. Clouds have a fractal pattern which people find calming.
  5. Bring along your own comfort foods – their smells and tastes will make you feel much calmer, even if they can’t actually make you happy with your feet so far off the ground.
  6. Be patient with your fellow travelers, at least for as long as you can. You’re all being taxed by the same inflight conditions and if they’ve snapped, reacting negatively yourself will worsen the situation.

Next time you find yourself on a flight, acknowledge the difficult situation in which you find yourself – that’s the first step to reducing your stress levels and enhancing your well-being.

Sally Augustin, Ph.D., is a practicing environmental psychologist who studies person-centered design and sensory science.

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