Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Does Perceived Steepness Deter Stair Climbing When an Alternative Is Available?

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Does Perceived Steepness Deter Stair Climbing When an Alternative Is Available?

Article excerpt

Published online: 6 November 2013

© The Author(s) 2013. This article is published with open access at

Abstract Perception of hill slant is exaggerated in explicit awareness. Proffitt (Perspectives on Psychological Science 1:110-122, 2006) argued that explicit perception of the slant of a climb allows individuals to plan locomotion in keeping with their available locomotor resources, yet no behavioral evidence supports this contention. Pedestrians in a built environment can often avoid climbing stairs, the man-made equivalent of steep hills, by choosing an adjacent escalator. Stair climbing is avoided more by women, the old, and the overweight than by their comparators. Two studies tested perceived steepness of the stairs as a cue that promotes this avoidance. In the first study, participants estimated the steepness of a staircase in a train station (n = 269). Sex, age, height, and weight were recorded. Women, older individuals, and those who were heavier and shorter reported the staircase as steeper than did their comparison groups. In a follow-up study in a shopping mall, pedestrians were recruited from those who chose the stairs and those who avoided them, with the samples stratified for sex, age, and weight status. Participants (n = 229) estimated the steepness of a life-sized image of the stairs they had just encountered, presented on the wall of a vacant shop in the mall. Pedestrians who avoided stair climbing by choosing the escalator reported the stairs as steeper even when demographic differences were controlled. Perceived steepness may to be a contextual cue that pedestrians use to avoid stair climbing when an alternative is available.

Keywords Geographical slant perception . Stair climbing . Demographics . Resource costs . Pedestrian behavior


This article deals with the choices pedestrians make while navigating the environment. Perception of hills is exaggerated in explicit awareness; for example, a 5° hill is reported to be 20° (Bhalla & Proffitt, 1999; Proffitt, Bhalla, Gossweiler, & Midgett, 1995). Fatigue and added weight in a backpack increase these exaggerations. To climb hills, individuals require strength in their legs to raise their weight against gravity. Being tired or carrying a large bag would require a greater proportion of available strength to climb a hill than when unaffected by these factors, and individuals may adopt a slower speed of ascent to reflect any resource depletion (Proffitt, 2006). Importantly, exaggeration of hill slant is stratified by demographic grouping. With increasing age, leg strength declines (McCardle, Katch, & Katch, 2007), and older participants report steep hills-for example, 25°-as steeper than do younger participants (Bhalla & Proffitt, 1999). Additionally, women report hills as steeper than do men (Proffitt et al., 1995). On average, women have lower leg strength than do men, coupled with a greater proportion of their body weight as fat (McCardle et al., 2007). Thus, an average woman has a lower strength-to-weight ratio than does an average man-that is, reduced resources for climbing. Although Proffitt has argued that effects of resource availability on explicit awareness of hill slant influence choice-for example, walking speed-no behavioral evidence supports this contention.

Parallel research in public health reveals that the effects of demographic grouping on hill perception are echoed by differences in pedestrian behavior at stairs. In many public access settings, such as train stations, pedestrians can avoid using resources to climb stairs by choosing an adjacent escalator. Pedestrians who carry large bags, are older, and are female avoid stairs more than do their comparison groups (Eves, 2013); naturally occurring pedestrian behavior mirrors the effects of demographic grouping on perceptual measures. In this behavioral evidence, however, groups with reduced resources for climbing are more likely to avoid further depletion. …

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