Do We Unconsciously Design Buildings So That They Encourage Certain Types of Thinking?

There is every reason to believe that this occurs, and it probably does so quite frequently. Research has found that people possess implicit theories about all sorts of issues that may or may not be accurate, and these theories exert important consequences on these people’s behavior. By implicit theories, I am referring to the idea that people possess assumptions that explain, propose relationships between, or otherwise give meaning to factors or occurrences in their worlds. An example might be a person who assumes that rooms with curved (versus flat) walls are more inviting and foster more active social activity. In some cases, people maintain and espouse these sorts of theories consciously, but in many instances, they exist and unconsciously affect people’s actions without their knowledge.

Prior to conducting some experimental research that explored whether the height of a building’s ceilings could actually influence people’s thinking style by causing them to focus on broad patterns as opposed to the particulars, a colleague and I came across a number of provocative assertions about design that were made by building and product developers as well as artists. These assertions contended that certain design features produce quite specific influences on people. The designers who made these claims offered no substantiation for them, yet they nevertheless sincerely believed the claims to be true to the point that they guided their creations. For example, one developer who constructed homes with high ceilings claimed that buildings with higher ceilings not only enable people to think more clearly, but they also instill individuals with higher levels of energy and provide therapeutic benefits to their physical health. In this example, the developer’s theory was expressed overtly and guided how the company’s buildings were designed.

However, research that has investigated people’s implicit theories reveals that such theories often exist and guide people’s behavior even when they are held unconsciously. The result is often somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy. That is, if an individual unconsciously believes that, say, higher ceilings enhance a person’s capacity to think creatively by seizing on nonobvious connections, that individual may notice all creative thoughts that he or she or others produce when spending time in a high-ceiling room—yet overlook all instances when no creative thoughts are elicited in that same room. In this way, the individual confirms or fulfills the prophesy that underlies his or her implicit theory.

Joan Meyers-Levy is the Holden-Werlich Professor of Marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

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