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.
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)