Behavioral Science

A Person Is Smart; People Are Stupid – On Society’s Unhealthy Addiction to Chairs.

by . May 1st, 2012

Eames Lounge Chair – WikiMedia Commons

Most entrepreneurs feel they have something valuable to share, which is part of why they’re a passionate bunch. “Why wouldn’t anyone like my idea? The market needs this. It makes perfect g______d sense! “

Unfortunately, as far as large groups of people (e.g.  your market!) go,  few things make much sense. If everything we did made sense, we’d all be using Dvorak keyboards, using the metric system, using squat toilets, and all major cities would have dedicated bicycle lanes.

What people want, and what people need are two totally different things. Take the chair you’re sitting on.

Tulip chair

Eero Saarinen Tulip Chair

You might want to stand up while reading this

Chairs are a relatively recent invention. Unsurprisingly, all chairs as we know them descended from thrones. They provided a  convenient, movable, elevated platform for people of high social status so they could see and be seen a lot better than those lowly shmucks who had to squat, kneel down, sit on the ground, on hard benches with other lowly shmucks, or on whatever irregular, non-movable surface as was convenient.

You will never pull this off
Ingres, Napoleon on his Imperial throne

In time, chairs came to be seen as a sort of status symbol. A legacy of this is words like “chairman”.  It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that people from lower social positions began to regularly sit on anything with a backrest. By then, everyone had to have one.

The problem is- chairs are bad for you. Some chairs are better than others, but the fundamental act of sitting  is bad for your health. The very act of sitting makes it more difficult for your internal organs to function. Sitting raises your risk of cardiovascular disease- and even cancer which sure surprised the heck out of me.

“No big deal!” you might think. “I lead a pretty active life.” But in surprising twist demonstrating just how much nature hates you, the amount of physical activity you do has zero-effect on the health risks posed by long-term sitting. The longer you sit, the bigger the risk to your health, no matter how many Iron-man triathlons you join.  Chairs are all at once addicting, deadly, and almost completely unnecessary.

As a species, what we’re actually built for is squatting, just like our closest living relatives- chimpanzees. As it happens, kneeling, sitting on the ground, on hard benches with other lowly shmucks, or on whatever irregular, non-movable surface as was convenient are all better than sitting in a chair, however well-designed. Fidgeting and standing up at regular intervals are actually good for you. We simply aren’t built to sit around all day.

Galen Cranz, a sociologist of architecture and perhaps the world’s leading expert on chairs (apparently there are people who study these things), has called chair ergonomics “confused and even silly.”  Colin McSwiggen, a writer for Jacobin Magazine with a design background has even gone as far to suggest the idea of chairs “A clusterfuck.”

Give them What They Want… Or Make Them Want It!

Tall-legged barstools and standing desks are perhaps the best compromise for health and working comfort, and greats such as Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Ernest Hemingway have sworn by these. As a matter of fact, these were default up until the start of the 20th Century.

19th Century Office. Note that people either worked standing up, or on tall stools that  give you a position much closer to standing.
Source: The Art of Manliness

Now chairs have lost most associations with high social status and are as commonplace as can be, all while making no good sense at all. The wisdom of the crowds once again has shown itself not to be very wise. Every car, and almost every office in the planet will have at least a few chairs, and I assure you your great-grandchildren will be Soylent Green way before we see chairs go away.

And there’s no way in hell I’m giving up mine. And in all likelihood, neither will you.

So if you have an idea that you feel your market needs, think of the chair you’re sitting on. Because people rarely know what they really need. Turning that need into something people want is what will make all the difference.

And oh… getting off your chair every once in a while might be a good idea.


Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.