Ceiling Height Influences the Notion of Freedom and Thinking Processes

When speaking of living space, working space, or any (closed) public space, we usually think of the space that we actually use, so it seems ironic that the space that we don’t actively use can be very important for us – the empty space above our heads. The height of a ceiling influences our feelings, thoughts and behaviour. This is not a revolutionary idea. I belive that we’re all intuitively aware that room’s height affects us, and can trace that awareness throughout the history of architecture. Some types of buildings like churches and temples always tended to have high ceilings, and were supposed to prompt abstract, spiritual thoughts. Maybe by making us feel small, they prime us to think about greater things – to think “outside the box”.

Musée d’Orsay, Paris; photo by Mark Bridge

What I like about investigating something so exact like room height is how easy it is to conduct an experiment. You just place people in two rooms that are identical in all features except the one you’re interested in, and record people’s feelings, thoughts and behavior. That’s exactly what Meyers-Levy and Zhu (2007) did in their three experiments when investigated the effects of high (10 ft; 3 m) and low (8 ft; 2,4 m) ceiling height on individuals’ notions of freedom versus confinement and how such effects further influenced information processing.

Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York; photo by Drumaboy

Subjects in the high ceiling room were more likely to report feeling a sense of freedom  and completed freedom-related anagrams more quickly and confinement-related anagrams more slowly than those in the low ceiling rooms. This means that high ceilings can prime the concept of freedom and low ceilings can prime the concept of confinement.

Alexandria Library, Egypt; photo by macloo

Authors further hypothesised that priming of notions of freedom and confinement would influence subjects’ thinking processes in a way that they would predominately use either relational or item-specific processing. This is because relational elaboration entails elaborating freely or uninhibitedly on multiple pieces of data so as to discern commonalities that they share. On the other hand, item-specific elaboration involves confining or restricting one’s focus to each item by itself and concentrating on its precise attributes.

Royal Masonic Girls’ School, London, U.K.; photo by stevecadman

As expected, the salient high ceiling height prompted subjects to analyze information in more abstract and integrated ways (relational processing) then low ceiling heigth which was evident in three tasks – item categorization, product evaluation and recall task.

Participants in the high ceiling condition used relational processing in the item categorisation task, producing a larger number of dimensions, greater abstraction in those dimensions that they identified, and a smaller average number of subgroups per dimension, than participants in low ceiling room.

The Nave, Canterbury Cathedral, U.K.; photo by stevecadman

When asked to evaluate the appearance of two products – coffee table and a wine rack, participants in the high ceiling room were more likely to pay attention to product’s overall appearance, and participants in the low ceiling room were more likely to notice the details.

Seattle Public Library, U.S.; photo by David Zeibin

In the recall task, subjects in high ceiling rooms were more successful at the free recall task (relational processing) and subjects in the low ceiling rooms were more successful at the cued recall task (item-specific processing).

Differences in processing strategies only emerged when due to salient ceiling hung lanterns, people were likely to attend to ceiling height.

The Blizard Building, laboratory, at the Royal London Hospital, U.K.; photo by stevecadman

Meyers-Levy and  Zhu concluded that ceiling height affected subjects’ subconscious perception of the environment and therefore, the information processing method they used. These findings are widely applicable.

For example, authors  suggest that art galleries featuring hard-to-interpret abstract art should install a high ceiling in order to prompt relational processing. Yet, those that feature more concrete, detail-filled representational art might benefit from low ceilings that prompt item specific processing.

The Blizard Building at the Royal London Hospital; photo by stevecadman

Similarly, rationally processing consumers in a high ceiling room may better make sense of quizzical ads, while ads that are ment to be understood literally, get more attention in a low ceiling room. These findings should also be taken into consideration when designing workspace, lecture halls, scientific institutes and study rooms. Designer should answer the question whether users would benefit more from being primed for relational or abstract thinking.

Reference

Meyers-Levy, J. and  Zhu, R.J. (2007) The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use. Journal of Consumer Research, 34,2, 174-186. (link)

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8 Responses to “Ceiling Height Influences the Notion of Freedom and Thinking Processes”

  1. Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a very well written article. I抣l make sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post. I will definitely comeback.

  2. I wonder the implications of this for people who live on prarie/plains versus people who live in mountain/valley areas? Also the implications of living/working in a skyscraper heavy area ie wall street or tokyo. Does it impact your decisions and thinking?

    • Hey, C.,

      Even though I didn’t find any research dealing with that specific question I’d expect that both skyscrapers and landscape impact our thinking, because we are sensitive to our surroundings – everything influences us in some way. But the main difference between say, Wall Street and experimental setting is that in real life (Wall Street) we’re exposed to numerous other factors that probably impact our thinking beside building height – like noise, crowding, traffic, exposition to stimuli, the presence of greenery etc. Some of them probably have opposite influences. You’d surely find some differences in thinking processes on Wall Street and in some quiter corner of Greenwich Willage but it would be hard to say to what factors should we attribute those differences.
      Your question inspired me to look up some more on how scyscrapers and landscape influence us, so I might we writing about that soon. The closest topic I found so far is a matter of preference – there’s an indication that we prefere natural landscape over cityscape and river view over mountin view – so I guess that mountains don’t necesarily increase the notion of freedom, but might be seen as obstacles?

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