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Tricked by Facebook?
Thank Arthur Melton ’32PhD

In 1996, first-year students at Yale Law School gathered in the auditorium for a lecture on legal writing and research.

Imagine the biggest library in the world, the instructor told us. Imagaine that it contains every book ever published. But the books aren’t catalogued. They aren’t shelved according to any system. In fact, they’re not even bound. Instead, the shelves contain individual book pages, stacked at random. When you pick one up and look at it, you have no idea where to find the pages before or after.

That, the lecturer said, is the internet.

Search engines and Facebook have changed all that, organizing those billions of pages for us—and for the benefit of their own bottom lines. We can find whatever we want online (even a public-domain graphic to illustrate this blog post), but we pay with our privacy. And we become unwitting participants in their continuous experimentation on—and manipulation of—web users.

For that, Ian Steadman argues in the New Statesman, we can thank a Yale-trained psychologist from the 1930s.

Arthur Weever Melton ’32PhD was a pioneer in the field of observing how a building’s layout and architecture affect people’s behavior. After three years of subtle experiments at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Melton published a study, Problems of Installation in Museums of Art.

Among his conclusions, Steadman writes, was “that the old, crowded way of hanging paintings (like this) diluted visitor attention; far better was to space them out as a single, orderly row along a wall, of no more than 18 at a time.”

Melton also found that when people enter a room and have a choice of turning left or right, they turn right 75 percent of the time—an observation exploited daily by supermarkets and shopping malls.

Melton’s findings apply generally to “built environments,” Steadman says—a category in which he includes websites. He links the New Deal-era psychologist’s work to the recently disclosed experiments in which the dating site OKCupid purposely gave users false leads about who might be a good match, and Facebook tried to induce depression in certain users.

Looking back on Melton's original work, it's notable that he was commissioned by a non-profit group of museums that wanted to help ordinary people enjoy museums more,” Steadman writes.

“Yet that motive, noble or otherwise, is irrelevant to the legacy of that research, and to the cultivated, commercialised descendents of the Philadelphia Museum of Art: supermarkets, shopping malls and, yes, the social web.”

It’s a fascinating essay; read the whole thing here.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Arthur Weever Melton, psychology
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