Psychology students at the University of British Columbia tried to test the theory that environment affects behaviour, at least when it comes to recycling habits in cafeterias.

The group of UBC students used hidden cameras to record the activity at the garbage sorting stations at two different campus lunchrooms: One is old and uninspiring bunker-like space in the Student Union Building; the other is a bright and new lunch space in the Center for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), a showcase for green construction. 


A psychology experiment at UBC found that nicer spaces encourage better behaviours, at least when it comes to sorting garbage from recycling. (CBC)

Graduate psychology student Alex DiGiacomo said the test was to see whether the different types of surroundings inspired different behaviours.

"We decided on a very simple experiment. We thought we would just go to CIRS, and kind of spy on people when they were disposing of their trash, and see how they did it, [and] if they were any better than in this building, the SUB," she said.


In the experiment, UBC students were watched with hidden cameras as their used recycling sorting stations at two lunchrooms. (CBC)

DiGiacomo and her team discreetly videotaped hours of people at the recycling bins, which were identical in both buildings.

At the green-friendly CIRS building, 86 per cent of students they watched took the time to sort through their garbage whereas just 58 per cent took the time to sort their recyclables at the dingy Student Union Building location.

"We actually found that people would take an amazing amount of time at the bins to decide where to put their stuff... whereas here [at the SUB], you would just see people kind of getting up and putting their trash in the bin," DiGiacomo said.


Graduate psychology student Alex DiGiacomo said only about half of the cafeteria users would sort their recycling in the Student Union Building lunchroom. (CBC)

Jana Foit, an architect with Perkins+Will, the firm that created the CIRS building, says studies like this one suggest "greenness" can even rub off on people who are just passing through.

"We were looking at the fixed users within the building, within the design. It's a pleasant surprise to see that the transient users are affected as well," she said.

With files from the CBC's Chris Brown