Getting High Boosts Cooperation


escalatorIn our language, we tend to associate height with good. Heaven is above us, Hell is somewhere beneath us. God is described as appearing on a mountain, not in a valley. You “look up” to someone you admire. It turns out that this association of height with good is rooted in our subconscious mind, and our physical location affects our behavior.

Lifting Generosity

A study led by Lawrence Sanna of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at how the physical position of subjects changed the probability that they would engage in “pro-social” acts, i.e., do good things. One experiment involved asking mall shoppers for a charitable contribution immediately after they had gone up an escalator or gone down an escalator. They found that 16% of the “up” people contributed, more than twice the 7% of “down” subjects. A control group of shoppers walking on level ground not near any escalators contributed at an 11% rate.

Elevating Cooperation

Another experiment was conducted in a more controlled setting with randomly assigned subjects. Subjects who had gone up a set of steps spent 68% longer helping the experiment leader with a task than those who had gone down a set of steps.

Physical location isn’t an essential component of the high/low effect. In yet another experiment, subjects were shown videos shot from an airplane or a car and asked to imagine themselves in the video. The subjects in the “high” condition were 60% more cooperative than “low” subjects in an activity in which they thought they were helping another individual in a computer game.

Practical Implications

Since non-profits depend on altruistic behavior to get donations and volunteers, many applications spring to mind. Locating donation tables at the top of steps or escalators would be an obvious step as it directly mimics the experiment. These findings might influence office location, too. Volunteers who walked up a flight of steps might will work harder and longer. While not demonstrated by the experiment, I think it likely that there might be a “high office” effect. Get donors in an upper-floor office with big windows, or at a fundraiser in a venue with an expansive view, and their generosity might be increased.

Business Applications

Most businesses don’t run on altruism, but cooperation is important. Using the altitude effect might be a great addition to a team-building exercise, or for encouraging everyone to pitch in for an important rush project.

Would altitude put customers in a cooperative frame of mind? It seems possible that closing sales might be easier with the customer in an “elevated” state, but that isn’t demonstrated by the experiment.

The researchers didn’t study how long-lasting the effect was, but I would suspect that repeated exposure to an elevated environment would reduce its impact. If you climb a flight of steps (or ride an elevator to the 20th floor) every day, it seems likely that the behavior effects would decline as the change in elevation became routine.

Control altitude, change attitude

Where’s your office? Where are you holding your next fundraiser? Where are you meeting your customer for lunch? Keep altitude in mind. And if you are stuck in the basement, note that in one experiment merely showing the subjects a video taken from on high was enough to kick in the height effect; consider installing a mural of clouds, or a big aerial photo.

Have you used height to good effect, either intentionally or not? Or have you had it used on you?

  1. Jacob Lepiarz says

    I wonder if this effect can be extended to the language we use as well. In a recent add I put together for an NPO partner I talked about LIFTING families out of poverty.

    Perhaps marketers can benefit from elevating their rhetoric a bit……

    1. Roger Dooley says

      No pun intended, I’m sure, Jacob!

      I suspect use of height words would have a positive priming effect, though I have no idea how weak or strong it might be.


  2. Crystal says

    That’s Interesting, A good practical application could be in car sales. If the car is on a platform you walk up onto would you be more likely to like and buy the car up their. My personal experience agrees with this study, as today I went on a hike and I just felt better at the top.

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