Post 38 –by Gautam Shah (Blog 8 in lecture series Space and Human Behaviour)


Human behaviour is seen in many different forms. Responses occurring due to a trigger or need, are intentional, whereas biological reactions are voluntary. Human behaviour is seen as macro or micro changes. Such changes are very explicit, but others are realized on their recurrence. Human behaviour can be simply defined as a different conduct when faced with a specific situation or a consequential action.

Plato and Aristotle, School of Athens, ART by Raphael (1483-1520)

Behaviour of a person depends on the level of adjustments, adoption, comfort, need for change, nature of interpersonal relationships and degree of exchanges with the space-environment settings. It is also conditioned by the culture and geopolitical surroundings. Behaviour can project different meanings to different people.

Pixels image > Two children

For a space designer, the study of behaviour in offers clues as to how a person will respond to a given space-environment setting. The two-way exchange between the space-environment and a person or group are so rapid that is not possible to separate cause and effects.

Rossio, Lisbon, Portugal, African Immigrants > Image by Ribeiro Simoes

A space-environment setting is an ever-changing enigma. A space characteristically static, seem to vary due to the environment. The space-environment concurrence poses an ever evolving relevance to the habitants.

Behaviour in Space is checked for:

  1.  Lone Inhabitant
  2. individuals within a group,
  3.  Group-based behaviour.

Behaviour of a lone inhabitant of a space depends on personal factors like pre existing psychological conditions, physiological make up, nature of the space+environment setting, experience, sequencing, personality build-up, cultural background and the task being handled. The behaviour also reflects the social responses as seen from habits, routines, customs, taboos, etc. Behaviour of a lone occupant is often in consideration of other absentee human beings.

Waiting alone > Flickr Image by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes Lisbon Portugal

● Behaviour of individual within a group is formed by the person’s own-self or, through personal factors like degree of social familiarity, commonality of purpose (affinity-kinship), similarity of age, sex, physical features, notions of intimacy and privacy. It is also moulded by the personal comfort (adaptation or acclimatization), familiarity of space and the environment make up, the duration of space occupation and degree of inhabitation, sequence of experiences, the capacity, means and opportunities of expression, etc.

Talking in Kitchen Pandang > Flickr Image

Group based behaviour is generated for many complex factors. It is also accumulation of individualistic behaviours, affective as a set of affinities of a loner, or rebellious mass hysteria. Group based behaviour in context of different persons is unique. Here the space and environmental settings (sharing the same domain) remain consistent, but other variants play an important role, such as distance of interaction, position (orientation -frontal, sideways, backside), familiarity, modes of expressions of behaviour (such as posture, gesture) and the ‘reach’ capacities of the participants. In a group the perception capacity of individuals depends on their need for participation. Smart or experienced individuals enhance their projection (and there by participation) by exploiting the features of space and environment. Audio-video means and other virtual reality modes can intensely simulate identical behaviour in individuals that are separated in space and time.

Old people playing cards in neighbourhood > Flickr Image Pedro Ribeiro Simoes


Parameters for Understanding Human Behaviour in Built Spaces

1. Shift in Space
2 Anchoring to a place
3. Change of Orientation
4. De-synchronized Movements of the Body limbs
5. Sequencing in space
6. Body Movements
7. Posturing
8. Aids for posturing
9. Open versus Closed body postures
10. Postural axises
11. Gestures
12. Eye level and its focus
13. Empathetic behaviour

A lone inhabitant, Individuals within a group, and Groups of people indicate their behaviour in following manners.

1. Shift in Space: One of the most perceived forms of behaviour is the shift in space. A shift in space is the change one cause in own-self, or the surroundings. The shift in space is made to gain a relief and to recast the relationship with the surroundings including other beings. One changes the body position and orientation frequently to re-calibrate the relationship with people and objects. Such shifts are subtle to more elaborate, like a change of posture to new place. From the moment of arrival into a space one starts a search for location, a place to confront objects and other beings in the space. The process reflects the attitude of a person through the gait, speed, clarity of the purpose, postural and gestural changes, etc. One can perceive and schematize the approach by promotive as well as hindering means.

Waiting Architecture Tate Building Shadows People
Anchoring to a place > waiting in architecture of Tate Buildings’ shadows and people > Mex Pixel Image

2 Anchoring to a place: In a space one needs to attach or belong to a place. One first shifts the location and orientation on entering a new space or when behaviour must be recast. By repositioning one vitalizes the relationships with objects and other beings. A strategy of behaviour is planned for objects and other beings who are already present, or their presence is envisaged. One needs a mark to position own self. The markings are found in spatial elements like a barrier, an edge, a differential in environment, a pattern, objects, amenities, facilities, nodes of services, other single human being or in groups. Other markings are metaphysical elements and metaphorical presences. A designer recognizes such entities, or implants them to make a space inhabitable or even hostile.


3. Change of Orientation: The primary shift occurs through change of orientation vis a vis an object, human being or a natural force (energy). The shift in orientation occurs by realigning the nodes of perception, such as turning nose towards or away from smell, view or ignore a sight, etc. It also occurs by being aware of a thing.

Korean village women folk in Hanbok > Flickr image by Caspian Blue

4. De-synchronized Movements of the Body limbs: Orientation of the body, of a limb like head and of the sensorial nodes like eyes, ears, nose, etc. are sometimes de-synchronized. One may talk to other, but avoid a square face to face position.

5. Sequencing in space: Behaviours in space are sequence of movements with planned or unplanned purposes, but all in consideration of other happenings. The unplanned sequences reflect improvisations for exploration, or compulsions of intense discomfort. A change in the expected sequence is divergent behaviour.


6. Body Movements: Body movements are of three types: parallel, against or towards the gravity. Of these, towards the gravity movements are passive, because these can be made without muscle activity. Movements are Active or Passive. Active movements are produced by own muscles to move a body’s part, whereas Passive movements are made by an outside force and without the participation or effort by the person. In both cases the distance, speed, and direction are important. Other passive movements are like the reverting positions, where a stretched muscle ‘relaxes’ to its normal position. The aid of tools amenities, facilities, structures, etc., are required for passive movements. Infirm and aged people rely on these when their own muscles become weak or are incapacitated. Physiotherapists use passive movements to regain the muscle power. Socially, any assistance for active movement hurts personal pride. Similarly physically disabled people do not prefer marked passive movement’s facilities for them.

Remaining engaged and anchored on the sidewalk of Times Square NY > Flickr image by Rosemarie Crisafi

7. Posturing: Postures are body positions that one adopts, voluntarily or unconsciously. These are to accommodate effects of gravity, exert the body for movement or resist it, to reach-out, withdraw or for exploiting the environmental effects. Posturing is using own body limbs and sensorial nodes in a coordinated manner, when alone, with another person, or groups of persons, objects in space, or environmental effects. Posturing requires change in the position and orientation of the body, relaxation, transition, exercise, activities, conducting tasks, communication and interaction. Postures indicate the current state or impending change in behaviour. One may reduce the degree of posturing or avoid frequent positioning by shifting the objects, reshaping the surroundings, changing the environment. One can also force recast of the sensorial connections through avoidance or engagement. Posturing occurs with and without the tools, amenities and facilities.

Le Moulin de la Galette > ART by Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

Postures are multi limb positions, and so have many variations within a basic theme. The variations are also micro changes of the body that help tune in sensorial perceptions. Postures create empathetic and confirming images. Certain body positions, patterns and movements suggest specific emotions. Postures directly and abstractly convey the state of interpersonal relationships, social standing, personality traits such as confidence, submissiveness, and openness, current emotional state and temperament. Postures are also used for offensive and defensive and non-involvement purposes. Posturing helps one control incursion by others into the personal domain of behaviour, as much as it allows one to project a participating personality.

Two old men on a bench > Pixabay image by marybettiniblank San Francisco CA

8. Aids for posturing: A posture often requires support, aid, or simply a physical closeness (as an assurance) of tools, amenities, facilities and structural elements. Support structures may not be versatile enough to provide all the required proficiencies. Some degree of personal adjustments is required to achieve the intended purpose. To attain and continue the posture, one needs support from other means. Real supports are like: tools (walking sticks, shoes, etc.), amenities and facilities (architectonic elements, equipments, furniture, furnishings, etc.). Virtual supports are abstract: such as the required environmental conditions and psychological sureties that in need these are available in the vicinity.

The parable of the blind leading the blind > ART by Pieter Brueghel the elder (1526/1530-1569)

 A podium or a front desk is a very assuring platform for a speaker, but shields the expression through body language. A leader, on a higher platform, controls the assault from the audience, and thereby dominates. By standing against a wall one assures that intrusion from that side is blocked, but by occupying a corner one limits the escape routes. Sitting in an aisle seat (In comparison to a window seat) allows one the postural freedom, but makes one prone to disturbances. Front benchers have to be attentive. Occupying a geometrical centre or a spatial focus automatically enhances the interference.

9. Open versus Closed body postures: In multi limb postures body limbs such as hands, fingers, feet, head, etc. are variously used to cover vulnerable sections of the body. Open body posture is perceived as a friendly and positive attitude. Closed body posture obscures and protects limbs like throat, abdomen, genitals, etc. Showing the back of the hand or clenching hands into fists may represent a closed posture. Hands clasped behind the back give impression of hiding something or resistance to closer contact, mean a closed body posture. Closed body postures give the impression of detachment, disinterest, unpleasant feelings and hostility. Similarly clothing may also signal closed posture such as a buttoned suit, or a handbag or briefcase held in front of the person.

Open body posture > ART Jealousy and flirtation by Haynes King (1831-1904)
Closed body posture > Flickr Image by cturtle22

A chair with arms rests, railings, bus or railway hang-straps encourage open posture. A moving object like a bus will not allow closed body posture. A deep seat that allows stretching of legs and excludes the crossing of legs, supports the open posture. A stool seat (without back) allows one to lean forward as an open posture. Sitting on the side of a fairly wide chair, leaning too much on one of the armrest, sitting upright (without touching the back) in an easy chair, sleeping very straight in a bed, keeping hands in pockets of the garment, are some of the signs of closed body postures. A person with a higher position nominally takes a more relaxed posture that seems to be less challenging, often sits down to talk. Whereas a person with a lower position, often maintains balanced or formal posture by placing both hands on the lap or at the sides and may remain standing until asked to sit.

Multiplicity of postures, position and behavioural expressions > Congress of Berlin 13 July 1878 > ART by Anton von Werner (1843-1915)

10. Postural axises: Postures are axially balanced or skewed. Balanced postures are mirror-image (congruent) postures, such as equally posed two feet, two hands, etc., or are normal like the frontal face, upright torso, erect neck, straight eye level, etc. Skewed postures reflect a readiness to transfer to another posture, due to shift in interest or saturation of boredom. Both, the balanced and skewed postures, can be unstable and cannot be maintained for a very long period. Inclination of the body, or head, close-to or away from the opposite person during a conversation depends on the basic posture of the body. The action depends on the sex and age of the opposite person and the nature of the topic. An inclination towards the opposite person can be an expression of sympathy and acceptance, whereas moving or inclining away can show dislike, disapproval, or a desire to end the conversation.

Mime artists Jean and Brigitte Soubeyran in play the Circus > Wikipedia image by Ellen and Gilles > Wikipedia image by Ellen & Gilles Soubeyrand

An intense conversation with heavy gesticulation or posture changes can be subdued by adding to the distance between the parties. Deep seating or reclining elements and mirrors not only reduce gesticulation, postural changes but also intensity of conversation. In waiting rooms seats are distanced and do not face the receptionist. A TV monitor that shows the class or office space disciplines the users.

Italian Old Men on Benches > Pixabay image by marybettiniblank San Francisco CA

11. Gestures: Gestures are voluntary or involuntary micro articulations of the body limbs and sensorial nodes (such as eyes, lips, skin, etc.). These are for expressions, directional perception, metabolic functions and other physiological reactions. Gestures include small moves of the head, face, eyes and nose (winking, nodding, twitching of nose, or rolling of eyes) and hands. Gestures are used to supplement the communication, but could be, either dependent or independent on the speech. Speech-independent gestures have a direct verbal translation, though often very abstract. A wave hello or peace signs are examples of speech-independent gestures. Gestures such as dance Mudra represent very abstracted information that is relevant to a culture specific group.

Gestures by comedian Lewis Black > Wikipedia image

Gestures could be categorized into many types:

Emblems are gestures with direct verbal translations, such as a goodbye wave, thumbs-up, Namaste, shrugging of shoulder (don’t know), head-shake (negation), or head-nodding (affirmation).

Illustrators are gestures that depict what is said verbally, such as in story telling, turning an imaginary steering wheel or running.

Displays are gestures that convey intensity of emotions, like a smile, cry.

Regulators are gestures that support the interaction.

An adapter is a gesture that facilitates the release of bodily tension, such as yawning or leaving a breath.

12. Eye level and its focus are some of the most important means of behaviour exposition. One can increase the distance and help de-focus the ‘gaze’, by taking a side seat or stand or by seating behind a desk. Often the opponents are disadvantaged by offering an uncomfortable seat, a seat lower in height and placing them in a non-axial position. Opponents are discomforted by providing them a fixed position with little or no chance for sub-posturing, like very narrow space, unbalancing, scary or distracting position. One, as an opponent can correct such conditions: by sitting or standing upright, by aligning body and sensorial faculties in the same direction, by heavily gesticulating, and raising the voice.

Making faces, Empathetic behaviour, > Pixabay image MSneor Highland Park USA

13. Empathetic behaviour: During intense conversations participants have a tendency to imitate each other behaviour. They emulate postures and gestures. Such empathetic behaviour encourages deeper relationship, provided necessary support means are available. Correct distance, equalized ergonomic facilities, nonspecific environmental conditions are some such means.

Public Transport > Flickr Image by Ahmed Mahin Fayaz


This is the EIGHTH lecture in the series Space and Human Behaviour for Winter semester, 2017, at Faculty of Design, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India.

Published by

Gautam Shah

Former adjunct faculty, Faculty of Design CEPT University, Ahmedabad and Consultant Designer

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