Saturday, April 30, 2011

The American Dream: Shopping?

Author/entrepreneur Seth Godin posted on his blog today about the reinvigorated Xanadu, a huge shopping mall project in New Jersey. Triple Five, the company who created the gigantic Mall of America in a Minneapolis/St. Paul suburb, are taking over development of the stalled Xanadu shopping complex in New Jersey and they plan to rename it The American Dream Meadowlands. Seth speculates about the significance of the moniker and the goal it represents:
"Is this the best we can do? Shop?"

Good question. The developer pitches the project as an opportunity to create jobs and adds that it will drive tourism to the area. NJ Biz reports:
"Triple Five’s Mall of America attracts 42 million people a year, but 'we believe and are confident American Dream will be drawing 55 million visitors every year,' 40 percent to 50 percent of which will be tourists, [Dan Jasper, Triple Five spokesman] said. The local population surrounding Mall of America 'is insignificant' compared to that of New Jersey and New York, he said."

Of course, the attraction won't be just the projected 300 stores and fifty restaurants:
"The expansion will include a glass-domed indoor amusement park, an indoor water park, an indoor skating rink, bowling alley, mini-golf course and aquarium; Triple Five plans to retain the ski slope, outdoor observation wheel, performing arts center and 26-screen, 5,000-seat movie theater that already were part of the project plan."

And yet, I suspect that the people who currently show up at the Mall of America entertainment/retail venue and those who will show up at The American Dream will find shopping an integral part of their experience.

The American dream has long included a certain amount of stuff -- "a chicken in every pot," a bungalow with a white picket fence -- but the quantity of stuff that's included now has increased exponentially. It's not enough to have comfort; now we expect luxury. It's not enough to have what we need; now we want what we want -- and plenty of it.

The original American dream was focused on freedom from persecution. Have we abandoned all such noble goals? Have we stopped dreaming about providing affordable health care to everyone, a solid education for children in safe public schools, cities with fully functioning infrastructures? Or personal goals like sending your kids to college, having a meaningful career and a secure retirement?  Has it all been reduced to wanting enough cash for a good time at the mall and a home crammed full of more stuff than we'll ever use, let alone need?

Life doesn't have to be a daily exercise in which we think only of serious responsibilities to our fellow man and our own survival. It's legal to have some fun, too! But how do we define the American dream now? Seth asked if shopping is the best we can do.

No. We can do better.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Clutter and Stereotypes

It's probably no surprise to most of us that a cluttered space can make a person feel uncomfortable. Our brains are hard-wired to create order out of whatever we encounter. That's why we often can see faces and figures when we look at clouds. It's why we try to create understandable patterns when we're really dealing with random information. We want to interpret the abstract and the unpredictable in ways that are familiar, comfortable, something that makes sense to us. So a disordered environment just doesn't sit well with the way our brains work. Obviously some of us are able to function in more of a mess than others, but it's an unusual person who doesn't find order to be more calming than disorder.

However, a fascinating recent study has found that disorder also can have another effect on our brains. According to an article by Amina Khan in today's LA Times:

"People in messy environments tend to compensate by categorizing people in their minds according to well-known stereotypes, researchers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands say."

The idea is that we fall back on the comfort of "orderly" stereotypes when we're made uncomfortable by a chaotic environment. The study used a train station during a time when cleaners were on strike and compared responses to questions and situations to the responses received when the station was neat and clean. They also experimented by questioning subjects in front of a house in an affluent neighborhood when a few items made the exterior look uncared for and again when the house looked as tidy as would be expected. In both cases, responses revealed significant differences in the amount of stereotyping done by the subjects. In addition:

"Lab experiments further confirmed that when faced with images of chaos — be it a messy room or a random scattering of triangles and circles — volunteers rated themselves higher on a scale measuring their personal need for structure. When they were allowed to express stereotypical feelings immediately after seeing those disordered pictures, however, their 'personal need for structure' scores were lower. Stereotyping satisfied that need, said [social psychologist Diederik Stapel, the study's lead author]."

The conclusions: the need for order matters even more than we knew it did and it can have unexpected effects on our thoughts, perhaps even our behavior. Does this mean that if we could unclutter everyone on Earth, we might at last find world peace? Well, that may be stretching it a bit, but it couldn't hurt!

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob
Image: Hazel Bregazzi at stock.xchng