A night of social experimentation at the Guggenheim

There were no book readings at the NYC launch of Happy City. 

By Seth Geiser

There were no book readings at the NYC launch of Happy City. Instead, we transformed the Participatory City gallery at the Guggenheim Museum into a laboratory of interactive experiments in social trust and happiness. Our goal: to explore, in a visceral way, the relationship between the design of our cities and the shape of human experience.


“We are not as free as we might think in cities,” Charles explained. “Urban architecture, spaces, and systems all influence the way we think, feel, and act.”

To demonstrate, Charles, his collaborators Dr. Colin Ellard, Christine McLaren, Omar Dominguez, and I led the audience through three immersive, participatory experiments.

Experience 1: The Subway Squeeze

The setup: A fabric “subway car” was installed within the exhibition space and 10-12 volunteers were asked to step inside. Colin strapped skin conductance monitors to five of the participants. The monitors recorded both arousal and skin temperature. What participants didn’t know was that one of the subway walls would be slowly moving inward, compressing the crowd to uncomfortable levels of intimacy.

subway squeeze

The results: According to Colin, the Subway Squeeze experience triggered remarkably uniform physiological effects. Wrist cuff data showed that nearly all cuffed participants experienced a steady rise in both physiological arousal and body temperature over the course of the brief exposure to the crowded setting. There were sharp peaks of arousal as the crowding intensified. The chart below is emblematic of the effects. Each  subway wall contraction (noted by a blue marker across the top) resulted in heightened stress, presumably from the reduction of personal space.

Screen shot 2013-11-05 at 12.49.48 PM

The takeaways: The findings surprised Colin, who expected there to be more variability in response:  “After all, some people are more accustomed than others to the tight confines of a subway car or a crowded sidewalk or marketplace. But it reminded me of some of our earlier findings in the global ‘Testing, testing’ experiment in which we showed that even when people experience intense crowding on a daily basis and feel that they’re used to it, their bodies betray the tell-tale signs of stressful arousal.”

Experience 2: Virtual Reality Booths

The setup: Recent studies by psychologists at the University of Rochester and elsewhere suggest that when people are exposed to nature, they exhibit more altruistic thoughts and behavior. Despite the constraints of our party environment, we wanted to test this for ourselves.

We asked volunteers to sit in one of two audio-visual immersion booths for 8 minutes. Each booth contained a large image and headphones. The first booth depicted a serene, savannah-like landscape and was complemented by a soundtrack of bird song. The second depicted a scene of brutalist concrete architecture, complemented with the sounds of auto traffic.


The test of their split experiences came when the volunteers were rewarded $10 for their participation and invited to share as much of that reward as they liked with a local charity (revealed later as Hester Street Collaborative). The act of donation was made privately and anonymously.


The results: Of the 10 participants, those exposed to the scene of nature exhibited greater generosity than those who were immersed in the cityscape.

Savannah immersion: the average participant donated 80% of their money to charity
Brutalist urban immersion: the average participant donated 60% of their money to charity

The takeaways: While our sample size was obviously too small for statistical significance, the results reflect recent insights from environmental psychology. Studies have found that, after being exposed to sensory components of nature, people tend to be more trusting and more generous. As Charles found in the book, “We know that nature in cities makes us happier and healthier. We know it makes us friendlier and kinder. We know it helps us build essential bonds with other people and the places in which we live.” Participants were reminded of these emerging truths.

Experience 3: Old Friends

The setup: Inspired by the Touching Strangers photo project by Richard Renaldi, we paired volunteers with strangers, asked them to share a secret with each other, then encouraged them to pose for photographs as though they were old friends reuniting. Participants seemed surprised and delighted by their own ability to connect with strangers in this way. There was plenty of hugging.

But the photo was just part of the experiment. Next, we had participants answer a single survey question: “If you dropped your wallet or purse on the way home tonight, on a scale of 1-10, what is the likelihood that someone would return it to you intact?” Our volunteers asked the same question of a control group: people in the room who hadn’t been asked to participate in the photo experience.

The results: Participants emerged  significantly more trusting than members of the control group. Of the 22 people who embraced strangers, the average wallet-return prediction was 5.4 out of 10. Of the 48 non-participants polled, the average wallet-return prediction was 4.2 out of 10.

The takeaways: The experience of meeting a stranger, getting to know them, and sharing an embrace seemed to cause people to be a more trusting of other strangers in the rest of the city–at least in the abstract. It is possible that some self-sorting occurred: people at the event noticed that some people were being paired for photos. More gregarious, trusting people may have been more likely to participate. Still, our results do reflect peer-reviewed studies that have shown that  empathic experiences among strangers can cause people to revise their perceptions of strangers in general. The takeaway is that cities that enable more face-to-face, trust-building encounters, may actually help build more general social trust.


The results of our three experiences are not fit for any peer-reviewed journal, and certainly the Happy City Lab, with its open bar and raucous crowd, was no research laboratory! But these experiences can help us understand in a direct way phenomena that psychologists are observing in labs and now cities around the world. Our environment does influence our feelings of altruism towards other people. Pushing people together into involuntary proximity can stress them out. And positive interaction with a stranger can have ripple effects on social trust.

We ended the night wondering: If we could get more policymakers into the experiments, would they advocate for the infusion of naturalistic spaces? Would they start building more capacity on crowded bus and subway lines? Would they want to hug each other more?

Inspired by the evening’s results, Team Happy City reconvened at a bar in the East Village where we built social capital until the wee hours.

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