This isn’t the sort of thing I blog about regularly, but it strikes me that this New York Timesarticle on suicide, of all things, has an important lesson about how our physical environments can shape our behavior.

According to the article, large numbers of “impulse” suicide attempts—the ones that are undertaken with little premeditation—could be prevented simply by making the most common means of taking one’s life a little less convenient. Consider Great Britain, where replacing deadly “coal gas” with relatively non-toxic natural gas in home ovens led to a dramatic decline in the national suicide rate:

[I]n its unburned form, [coal gas] released very high levels of carbon monoxide, and an open valve or a leak in a closed space could induce asphyxiation in a matter of minutes. This extreme toxicity also made it a preferred method of suicide. “Sticking one’s head in the oven” became so common in Britain that by the late 1950s it accounted for some 2,500 suicides a year, almost half the nation’s total.

Those numbers began dropping over the next decade as the British government embarked on a program to phase out coal gas in favor of the much cleaner natural gas. By the early 1970s, the amount of carbon monoxide running through domestic gas lines had been reduced to nearly zero. During those same years, Britain’s national suicide rate dropped by nearly a third, and it has remained close to that reduced level ever since.

In short, removing an instrument of self-harm from people’s homes made fleeting self-destructive impulses far less deadly.  Venturing a guess, it may even have made such impulses less common:  the constant presence of the nation’s #1 instrument of suicide—in the kitchen, no less — surely triggered self-destructive thoughts among people in the middle of a temporary bout of depression or anxiety.

The lesson here is some matters that seem intensely private—and exclusively in the realm of personal psychology—more properly belong in the domain of public health.  Preventing suicide attempts that result from temporary despair may be less a matter of identifying and dealing with the underlying emotional issues, and more a matter of making the actual mechanics a pain in the ass.

At risk of reading too much into one article, I think there’s a more general point to be made here:  our physical environment—the objects we surround ourselves with, and the places we make for ourselves—can have a potent influence both on what we do, and on how we think.

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  • The influence of the physical environment hasn’t gotten much air time in academic discourse about human behavior.  This strikes me as odd, since it’s a natural complement to the two great debates over “free will” (how much we really have) and “nature vs. nurture (whether biology or culture most determine who we are and how we behave).  The effect of the physical environment could be brought up in either debate; but until now, it’s gotten short shrift in both of them.  From what I can tell, that’s a serious oversight:  as Great Britain’s experience shows, there’s plenty of empirical evidence that what’s in people’s homes can have a huge—even determinative—effect on their actions and choices.

    There’s a similar dynamic at work in discussions of transportation policy. Surrounding ourselves with cars, roads and ample parking—but neither sidewalks to walk on, nor destinations worth walking to—increases how much we drive, and decreases how much we walk. Still, many  transportation planners interpret the decision to hop in a car as an expression of a deep-seated personal preference, rather than a choice that’s powerfully influenced by the built environment.

    A robust academic debate might explore how the physical environment shapes behavior. Does the physical environment simply make certain inclinations easier to act on—the way a convenient sidewalk makes walking easier for those who are interested in walking anyway?  Or do our environments actually foster certain habits of mind, and shape our inclinations and attitudes?

    I tend to think that the latter effect—physical environments shaping attitudes themselves—is quite powerful.  Alan, for example, talks about “Car-head”: the tendency for drivers to see all transportation issues through the distorting lens of a car windshield, and to forget that bikes, buses and pedestrians have a legitimate right to use the road.   Alan’s right.  A car-only landscape can make driving seem like a “natural” preference, and walking seem like a nuisance.  And while those attitudes are often portrayed either as innately human, or influenced primarily by a car-drunk culture, I think those attitudes are far more malleable, and affected by one’s environs:  spend enough time in a place where walking’s a joy, and you may well start to enjoy walking.

    Which suggests that one powerful way to change people’s attitudes about transportation may be to change neighborhoods themselves.  High fuel prices are already stimulating demand for the sorts of communities where people can drive less.  But once people live in those sorts of places for a while, my bet is that many will come to see a “car-lite” lifestyle as an obvious, natural, and preferable choice—much as car-dependent lifestyle seems like the “natural” choice for those who live in today’s far-flung suburbs.