big box stores and chainsI’m interested in the many creative ways people are choosing to live now that we have more opportunities than we ever have had before to choose our places, our spaces, and our people. There are charming pocket neighborhoods, creative cohousing communities, and many more innovative ways to live that are relatively new to the American landscape.

Still, though, there is tons of uniformity – miles and miles of look-alike suburban sprawl, and the same chain store restaurants and big box stores popping up just about everywhere.

What’s with that? Isn’t America supposed to be the land of rugged individualism, a place where we like to think of ourselves and our preferences as oh so very unique? How does our affinity for so much uniformity square with that?

Lots of perspectives offer answers to these questions. Economic factors, historical considerations, and policy incentives and disincentives all provide important insights. But what does psychology have to offer?

A team of researchers published a series of studies to answer that question. They found that our mobility has something do with our preferences for big box stores and chain restaurants.

The psychology of the process goes something like this: Some of us, when we move, find the experience unsettling. When we are feeling anxious, we prefer familiar things, such as the standardized stores and restaurants we can often find nearby no matter where we move. In turn, the presence of familiar stores in different places means that it is a little less intimidating to move than it might be otherwise.

The researchers did a series of studies to demonstrate their ideas. In those studies, they showed, for example, that:

  • States with higher levels of moving around (“residential mobility,” in the jargon) also have more chain stores and restaurants such as Target, Walmart Neighborhood Market, Chili’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Whole Foods, and Home Depot. That’s true even when you control for economic and demographic factors that might otherwise account for the finding.
  • People who moved a lot when they were growing up are more likely than people who did not move a lot to prefer chain stores over local shops when they are visiting an unfamiliar place.
  • When you ask people to think about moving often and how that makes them feel, some express more anxiety than others. Those who feel more anxious show greater preferences for familiar stores.

Again, psychology cannot provide the entire answer to why so many Americans like uniformity and familiarity in their stores and restaurants. Too many factors also matter, and even the psychological experience is not going to be the same for everyone. Nonetheless, I find the psychology of moving and housing and preferences for different places to be intriguing. It is only very recently that these kinds of studies have begun to appear with any regularity.


Oishi, S., Miao, F. F., Koo, M., Kisling, J., & Ratliff, K. A. (2012). Residential mobility breeds familiarity-seeking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 149-162.

Big box store photo available from Shutterstock