We’ve discussed priming – the idea that an attitude or concept can be activated in an individual by subtle cues without conscious awareness – multiple times (e.g., Priming by Order, Priming the Customer, Thinking about Money) and others). Now, researchers have found that something as subtle as a two-foot difference in ceiling height can alter the way the brain works.

“Priming means a concept gets activated in a person’s head,” researcher Joan Meyers-Levy told LiveScience. “When people are in a room with a high ceiling, they activate the idea of freedom. In a low-ceilinged room, they activate more constrained, confined concepts.” The concept of freedom promotes information processing that encourages greater variation in the kinds of thoughts one has, said Meyers-Levy, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota. The concept of confinement promotes more detail-oriented processing.

The study consisted of three tests ranging from anagram puzzles to product evaluation. In every tested situation a 10-foot ceiling correlated with subject activity that the researchers interpreted as “freer, more abstract thinking,” whereas subjects in an 8-foot room were more likely to focus on specifics. [From Ceiling Height Alters How You Think.]

This study certainly triggers a whole cascade of individual questions – if a two-foot difference in ceiling height (that, in an office setting, few people would find noticeable enough to mention), what might the other architectural characteristics of the environment do? How might a soaring cathedral ceiling compare to either the eight or ten foot flat ceilings? How would a Frank Gehry structure composed of swooping curves compare to a rectilinear box? Would a windowless room, an office with a typical modest window, and one with floor-to-ceiling glass affect one’s thought process in a different manner? What about colors and textures? The number of variables is huge, and few have been studied.

For years, architects have boasted about the ability of their structures to spark creativity, enhance collaboration, and so on. While many probably dismissed these claims as mere puffery, now it seems that the research is beginning to make such claims more plausible. Back in 2005, we suggested that “neuroarchitecture” might be the next big buzzword. That didn’t prove to be the case, and we heard very little about the topic after that. These new findings may reignite interest in that topic.

Neuromarketing aside, retail marketers have long employed architectural priming techniques. Most of these have been fairly obvious – banks built substantial masonry buildings with classical pillars to connote timeless stability, expensive clothing retailers created store environments with high-concept designs and high quality flooring and fixtures, etc. Most of this work has been done intuitively – in the coming years, one might expect that store concepts will be tested and tweaked using the tools of neuroscience and psychology. Perhaps the day of the neuroarchitect has finally arrived.

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