Rationality and Decorating

From Wired:

Thomas’s sumptuous designs led people to spend as they’d never spent before, and, in the years since the Bellagio was completed, research has supported the psychological assumptions that went into its creation. Karen Finlay is a professor at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, who focusses on the behavior of gamblers. Her latest experiments have immersed subjects in the interiors of various Vegas hotels by means of a Panoscope, which projects three hundred and sixty degrees of high-definition video footage. There are slot machines and card tables in every direction. Using the Panoscope method, Finlay compared the mental effects of classic casinos, with low ceilings and a mazelike layout, to those of casinos designed by Thomas. Subjects surrounded by footage of Thomas’s interiors exhibited far higher levels of what Finlay terms mental “restoration”—that is, they were much more likely to say that the space felt like a “refuge” and reduced their stress level. They also manifested a much stronger desire to gamble. In every Panoscopic matchup, gamblers in Thomas’s rooms were more likely to spend money than those in Friedmanesque designs. Although subjects weren’t forced to focus on the slot machines, the pleasant atmosphere encouraged them to give the machines a try.

One point is just that a huge number of casino owners (who are presumably highly incentivized to make money) jumped to a conclusion about what would work best, and they were wrong.

A possible angle is that people don't trust pleasure enough-- the assumption was that people couldn't be led to gamble, they had to be forced.

On the other hand, if the story in the article is correct, getting a better solution wasn't a process of thought and testing, it was a result of the right weird person trusting himself, and convincing a casino owner to trust him.

Does the article imply that it's extremely important to make your work space as pleasant as possible in all respects? Would that make it too hard to get out for socializing?

Mild aggravation: The test was set in simulated casinos, not real ones.

Gender nitpick: The article describes the female-friendly casino as having every surface covered with something expensive. It seems to me that the male-friendly decorating scheme (British club-- it didn't work because men weren't showing up at all) just has everything either covered with or made of something expensive. Not a huge difference.

I'm left wondering whether the male-friendly scheme was actually the wrong male-friendly scheme and something else would work. Is there such a thing as human-friendly decorating which is gender non-specific?


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Is there such a thing as human-friendly decorating which is gender non-specific?

I strongly suspect there is. The men's setup was specifically full of masculine-coded adornments (wood, leather), and the women's setup was full of slightly feminine-coded adornments (plants, lots of light).

But I think that there's considerable overlap, and there are also environments that are considered conducive to specific kinds of activities.

For example, most people seem to like dimly lit spaces for romantic activities or "night life" (though personally I hate dimly lit places; light is cheap, why should I struggle to see things?).

OTOH most people like to work in environments with lots of natural light, the "window office," because of the cumulative effect of sunlight on mood. (Being inside and away from the sun all day wears you down. I never noticed this when I was in school because I never spent long periods of time away from the sun. Now that I work in an office it's obvious.)

The reason I've been cited for the dimly lit preference is pupil dilation, a sign of attraction.

I think "jumped to a conclusion" is a bit strong; there are several possible explanations aside from "designers got it wrong until Thomas figured it out":

  • The "Maze" structure was the most profitable when casinos were new, but it is now an overserved niche, while the market for spacious, beautiful gambling is (or was until recently) underserved.
  • Women used not to gamble so much, but the successes of feminism mean that more women are able to do what they want with more money than before, so designing spaces that appeal primarily to women has become more profitable, and different designs appeal to women. (These first two points in conjunction would also explain why the masculine luxury setup didn't work - men were already well served by existing casino layouts.)
  • Our cultural standards and expectations have changed, so the Maze used to be optimal always and everywhere, but now the spacious rooms are better at generating revenue.
  • Building things like Thomas does used to be prohibitively expensive relative to the extra revenue it generates, but the cost relative to a "Maze" layout has declined.
  • There is a new (relative to casinos) class of mass affluent, who don't go to super-exclusive places to gamble, or even the high stakes tables, but demand a more "luxurious" experience and don't like being trapped in a maze
  • The maze was obviously a local maximum, and experimentation is expensive. Thomas may just have been lucky that his wild guess was right. The "men's club" luxury setup was an expensive wrong guess.

Is there such a thing as human-friendly decorating which is gender non-specific?

How about an intersection between male-friendly and female-friendly decorating (assuming that such things exist)? In your example, female-friendly decorating seems to be a subset of male-friendly decorating, so in this case, intersection equals to subset, so "having every surface covered with something expensive" is a solution which satisfies everyone.

Though I am a bit suspicious of the data. First, it seems to be somehow resistant to falsification, because even if I give you an example of something unexpensive which is pleasant to be around, you can replace it by an improved version of the same thing, which will probably also be a bit more expensive. In other words, are expensive things pleasant per se, or does it just mean that when you optimize too much, it tends to get costly? Second, decoration good for casino does not have to be good for other purposes.