Reuters/Carlos Barria

If we're so fiercely independent, why do we choose familiarity when we shop?

 "The Egyptians have pyramids, the Chinese have a Great Wall, the British have immaculate lawns, the Germans have castles, the Dutch have canals, the Italians have grand churches. And Americans have shopping centers."

That's a line from a 1996 paper by famed urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson. It's pitch perfect not just because comparing shopping centers to those other elegant accomplishments is ludicrous, but because the uniformity of shopping centers stands in contrast to the individuality of the American spirit. We defend to the last the right to pursue our own desires, but when it comes time to exercise that right, it turns out most of us desire to pull out of the driveway, head toward the main suburban strip, and turn into Walmart, Target, Home Depot, etc.

So what's the source of this gulf between our individual ideals and our common practice? A group of behavioral scientists, led by Shigehiro Oishi at the University of Virginia, thinks it has to do with residential mobility. Part of American independence has always been the right to pack up and move somewhere more promising. De Tocqueville marveled at the restlessness of the typical American: "he settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere." We saw the same thing during the recent boom; in 2006, some 16 percent of Americans moved within the previous year. 

Oishi and colleagues believe this American restlessness gives rise to the American strip mall. Something about continual movement carries a concurrent urge for familiarity—like ordering the same drink in any bar, perhaps. In short, movement breeds anxiety, and anxiety seeks stability. At least that's the theory put forth by Oishi and company in last month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

"Our main thesis is that residential mobility, the very factor that allows Americans to pursue their individual desires, ironically facilitates the uniformity of American landscapes. This is because a move to a "strange land" evokes the desire for familiar objects, including national chain stores. Although starting a new life in a new city is exciting, a residential move also causes a significant amount of stress and anxiety. … This general state of agitation, stress, and overload is expected to lay the foundation for familiarity-seeking behaviors among movers."

The researchers defend their idea with a series of studies that examine the correlation between mobility and strip mallery. In one test, they gathered 128 people into a lab, showed them a list of stores, and asked them to choose which one they'd visit on a shopping trip. The list matched up national chains with fictional stores that seemed to be local equivalents (e.g. Whole Foods v. Fresh Mart). They also collected information about how often the participants had moved in the past. When they put this data together they found that while everyone tended to like chain stores, there was a significant correlation between the number of times a person moved and their preference for chains.

When the researchers tried again with 102 different people, the findings held true. And they remained true when data were controlled for personality variables, political orientation, and socioeconomic status:

"In short … personal history of residential moves uniquely predicts preference for national chain stores over local stores. …  Furthermore, personal history of residential moves was the only significant predictor of preference for national chain stores among 12 to 16 variables."

Another test was even more intriguing, from a psychological standpoint. The researchers gathered 173 people and put some of them in a "mobile mindset" by having them write an essay about getting a job that required them to move. Others, meanwhile, wrote about getting a job and being forced to stay put. Then Oishi and colleagues showed a series of Chinese characters and asked which ones they liked most.

Once again, everyone liked characters that were repeated several times, but those put in the mobility mentality liked them much more than those in the stability mentality. And when the researchers went back to the mobility essays and looked even closer, they found a link between the number of anxiety-related words and the familiar characters.

Compelling as some of this evidence is, psychology alone can't explain chain store development, of course. There are many other strong economic and social factors at work here. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; there are limitations on time and energy that make this type of behavior essential. And city dwellers do something similar; as Ethan Zuckerman recently pointed out in a great musing on serendipity in the city — or the lack thereof — we hope for that random urban encounter more than we actually seek them. But the paradox of independence is particularly important from a planning perspective, because every time someone proposes an anti-sprawl measure like denser development along the lines of established infrastructure, car lovers cry murder to their individual freedom. But in some ways, it's already dead.

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