They also found a gender difference. Men liked the desert landscaping much more than women did. How come? "We don't know, exactly," Yabiku says. "But it might be that men are typically assigned maintenance duties, and they look at a lawn and see something that needs to be mowed. A desert environment is seen as low maintenance.
"And women are often assigned indoor tasks," he adds. "Some see a desert landscape and think dust."
It's not clear why people who have lived in the Phoenix area are less likely to prefer desert landscaping, Yabiku says. But similar findings have emerged from other studies in Arizona and New Mexico.
Although the experiment allows sociologists to have some control over the data, it's not perfect. There is a high turnover in the student housing project, so the results are a little fuzzy. Is the landscaping having an impact on social activities, or did some occupants choose a house with landscaping that already fit their lifestyle?
Yabiku says the working hypothesis is that landscaping makes a difference. But it will be a few years before he knows for sure.