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Some people sit in a room with high ceilings in Nolte Hall.

High ceilings, like this one in Nolte Hall on the Twin Cities campus, encourage abstract thinking. Better find a low-ceiling room, which tends to focus thought, to study in for your statistics final.

Ceilings affect our thoughts and feelings

Room height can influence how we buy and how we study

By Kristi Goldade

May 1, 2007

Joan Meyers-Levy stood waiting to board a plane with a ceiling so low she'd have to duck to walk to her seat. As flight attendants herded passengers into the cramped cabin, she began to wonder whether ceiling height might have an effect on how we think.

Once she returned home, Meyers-Levy, a professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management on the Twin Cities campus, looked for scholarly research on the topic and found virtually none. What she did find was hundreds of unfounded claims from people like real estate agents to a guru of transcendental meditation, all hailing the benefits of high ceilings. Her skepticism kicked in--it was time to investigate.

Meyers-Levy shared her ideas with fellow researcher Juliet Zhu of the Saunder School of Business, University of British Columbia. Together they conjectured that when people are reasonably aware of their environment and are in a high-ceiling room, they might experience a feeling of freedom. In turn, this feeling will prompt them to engage in a thought process called relational processing, a fancy term for abstract thinking.

Conversely, Meyers-Levy and Zhu reasoned that when people are in a low-ceiling room, they might experience a feeling of confinement. This feeling will lead them to engage in item-specific processing, which allows a person to think analytically and focus on details.

If a person is developing broad initiatives for a university, for example, a job requiring abstract thought, high ceilings should help make the task easier.

To test their theories, they performed several marketing related experiments. They used a pair of rooms identical but for ceiling height, which was 8-feet and 10-feet. Lamps were hung from the ceiling to draw attention to the height of the room; then they were placed on the floor to draw awareness down from the height. At each change of the light, participants then completed tasks on abstract and concrete thought.

The study confirmed their theories.

It revealed that when participants were aware of the height, high ceilings activated abstract thinking and thoughts of freedom, whereas low ceilings activated concrete thinking and thoughts of confinement.

In consumer theory, this means that in stores with noticeably high ceilings, people are more likely to see a big sale and buy, without much attention to the finer points of pricing. But when they walk into a low-ceiling store, they will see a big sale, notice items are only marked down by five percent, and walk away without purchase.

However, Meyers-Levy emphasizes that the advantages of high ceilings have much to do with the task at hand. If a person is developing broad initiatives for a university, for example, a job requiring abstract thought, high ceilings should help make the task easier. Yet if a person is studying financial data sheets for the same initiative, a lower ceiling will encourage detailed, analytical thought.

Meyers-Levy and Zhu feel hopeful about the broad applicability of their research. It suggests that higher ceilings would be advisable for travel agencies, encouraging prospective travelers to imagine the intriguing possibilities of their destination. And when it comes time for that vacation, travelers would benefit from packing in a lower ceiling room to remember easy-to-forget items.

Listen to Joan Meyers-Levy, marketing professor at the U, explain how ceiling height can affect how you think on University of Minnesota Moment.