Whether you realize it or not, some people, places, and situations license you to behave in certain ways you otherwise wouldn’t. According to the growing field of embodied cognition, these “permission zones” allow us to enter an alternate emotional space–sometimes by stepping into a literal one, like a zoo, movie theater, or fast food joint.
Other times, an event or behavior can transform the place where we already are–like the office–into one where we have a certain behavioral latitude that we didn’t just moments before.
Is it any wonder that despite the criticism they’ve received over the years for selling high-calorie food, McDonald’s and Burger King have both struggled to sell fruit and salads? The truth is that the impulse to eat fast food is all about entering a permission zone, where we allow ourselves to splurge on a greasy, non-nutritious meal. Fast food joints just have different ways of encouraging customers to grant themselves leeway.
Five Guys, for instance, stacks bags of potatoes from the entrance up to the counter—”look, natural ingredients!”—and the decor taps into a mid-century nostalgia that makes customers feel okay about eating made-to-order burgers and fries that aren’t any healthier than the prewrapped quarter-pounders under a McDonald’s heat lamp.
In other words, all permission zones are subjective. Sure, there’s an established trend toward eating organic, locally sourced foods, but that’s only part of Whole Foods’s overall effect on shoppers. Once consumers pass through the doors of a Whole Foods, their behavior, and even their perspective on the world, is subtly transformed.
Whether it’s the mostly upscale clientele the store attracts, the homely chalkboard signage, or the sense of participating in a seemly virtuous act of commerce, Whole Foods gives shoppers permission to become more sophisticated, discerning (and arguably more humorless) versions of themselves. Make your way down aisle nine, and you’ll find you’ve never been so discriminating when it comes to roasted fig puree.
But there’s another element at work here, too. As Sandra Blakeslee explains in the New York Times, embodied cognition researchers believe that people “think not only with their brains but with their bodies.” In this view, our bodies in turn suggest various abstract concepts to our brains, and it’s this back-and-forth that determines our behavior.
For example, if you or I carry around a clipboard, we’ll generally feel more important, organized, and mindful of whatever we have to do that day. For largely unconscious reasons, Blakeslee writes, speaking with the researcher Adam D. Galinsky, we associate washing our hands with moral cleanliness in addition to hygiene (just ask Lady Macbeth), and we tend to view people holding a cup of hot coffee as warmer and more approachable than those holding a glass of iced tea.
These sorts of effects don’t just happen when we’re shopping. I can’t help but be reminded of the behavioral changes I see all the time when airline passengers take their seats in the business- or first-class cabin. Their body language undergoes subtle but distinct adjustments. Men and women both become more fastidious and sedate. If they were loud and talkative before, their voices drop in volume, and even their bodies seem to hush. Many of them actually become how they expect first-class passengers to behave.
Finally, these permission zones can be linguistic. If you’ve ever sat in a meeting, or had a conversation with people you don’t know well, you probably recall the first time one of you used profanity. Without even realizing it, you’ve just granted the others permission to swear. You can almost feel an unbuckling of formality in the room, and from that point on, everyone at the table starts to loosen up.
That’s usually a lot healthier than a cheeseburger.
This article is adapted from theNew York Times–best-selling Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends by Martin Lindstrom. Copyright (c) 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. It is reprinted with permission.