Crowded House?

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Researchers discover that perception doesn't always equal reality.

The difference between what people say and what they do is a traditional source of frustration for marketers. Add diversity to the equation, and it gets even more challenging.

That's what Gary W. Evans, a professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University, discovered when he tried to assess whether people from diverse ethnic backgrounds had different perceptions of crowding. Evans' goal was to ascertain how many people could be in a room before the subject felt crowded, and began to suffer negative psychological effects.

Along with Stephen J. Lepore of Brooklyn College and Karen Mata Allen of the University of California at Irvine, Evans designed a quantitative study to determine whether people from Hispanic or Asian cultures are more capable of handling crowded conditions than whites or blacks.

The researchers were working from a general assumption: That people from Asian or Hispanic cultures naturally have a higher tolerance for crowded living conditions. Although it had never been scientifically tested, this assumption certainly didn't rise out of a void. It was based on sociologists' observations that people from these cultures seem to have smaller personal space zones - they conduct conversations at a closer distance than people from other cultures find comfortable, for instance. Hispanics and Asians also tend to have "collectivist" orientations, promoting the needs of the group ahead of their own self-interest. Plus, how could you argue with experience? In the United States, at least, people from these cultures tended to live in more crowded quarters, so perhaps they were simply used to those conditions. It seemed to make sense, then, that people from collectivist cultures would value privacy less than people from self-centered, "individualistic" Northern European and North American cultures.

In 1999, Evans and his team conducted 464 in-depth interviews with whites, blacks, Mexican Americans, and Vietnamese Americans in four metro areas: Los Angeles and Orange County in California; Pittsburgh; and Syracuse, New York. What the researchers discovered in the process, was that common wisdom was a bit off-base, possibly because of the gap between people's perceptions and their behavior.

It is, in fact, true that people from high-contact cultures (Mexican and Vietnamese Americans in this study) have different perceptions of crowding. Whites and blacks feel more crowded when there are fewer people in the room, in comparison to Mexican and Vietnamese Americans. As the number of people per room grows, blacks and whites feel comparatively more crowded than Hispanics and Asians in this study - on the order of 50 percent.

But perception is only part of the story. The researchers also measured respondents for psychological and physiological stress, using an index to quantify psychological distress for non-clinical populations. The index calculated moderate degrees of nervousness, anxiety, and depression on a five-point scale, where zero means "never" and four means "very often." For example, the respondents were asked whether they'd felt depressed or sad in the last week, or whether they felt anxious. When income was factored out of the equation, the team discovered that regardless of cultural background, crowded living conditions created negative health effects.

So, why is there a discrepancy between perception and actual measurable psychological response? "The relationship between what people say and what people do is not as high as we'd like it to be," explains Evans.

For marketers, it's a lesson to keep in mind when planning strategy based on a survey that only assesses attitude. "Be careful about generalizing from a perception or an attitude to a health response or a behavior response," advises Evans. "You and I may see it differently because we're from different ethnic groups, but if you put me in the same situation, I am not going to respond to it any differently than you do." Cultural differences matter, but perhaps not as much as some people might think.

For further information, contact Gary Evans, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Martha Van Rensselear Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 14853, or [email protected]

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