The Psychology of Space, Part 1


While exploring the IAVM website the other day, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the incredible range of event spaces that are showcased. Over the last 20 years, the evolution in structural engineering has allowed architects to create ever-more creative, inspired, and aesthetically pleasing designs for convention centres, arenas, and meeting spaces inside and out.

Interestingly, although I work in interpersonal communication, our team of behavioural scientists are often approached by architects involved in creating such spaces to ensure that, aside from being incredible to look at, their designs take into account the numerous effects that we know the environment has on the way humans think, feel, and behave. So this month, in the first of two parts, let me explore with you reasons why architects are increasingly turning to psychology in the bid to create the perfect event space.

Perhaps it is worth initially highlighting a few fundamental points: The first is that humans are not all the same and individuals may react differently to space design (Danielsson, 2009; Maher von Hippel, 2005). The studies I’ve used in writing this column generally look at average differences in relation to the impact of space. In other words, the effects are group effects rather than on every individual within that group. Second, it is fascinating to see that in several studies the effects are “non-conscious,” meaning that people are not necessarily aware that any changes in feelings or behaviour are actually related to the environment they were in. Finally, it is also worth noting that effects can differ over time due to the nature of adaptation, whereby individuals adapt to changes in the environment which, in turn, means the impact of the environment may be reduced over time. One key psychological insight is therefore that, when wanting to impact emotions and behaviours, space that allows flexibility and adaptability may be more effective as it caters for individual preferences as well as longer term adaptation that may occur.

Another benefit of creating a flexible and adaptable environment is the fact that spaces that change regularly have been shown to be rated higher and, in addition, have elicited more positive attitudes within the individual, too (McElroy & Morrow, 2010). There is also strong evidence that suggests the more control and autonomy people have to personalize or modify the spaces in which they interact the more they report a greater sense of psychological comfort and well-being (Knight and Haslam, 2010a). For example, within an office this might be borne out through individuals personalizing their desks with a photo of their family, a plant, or in some cases, table top basketball or soccer. Within a conference this might result in the organisers offering numerous types of seating choice (sofa, armchair, bean bag, etc.) as opposed to forcing everyone to sit in theatre-style on generic standard seats. (They may also encourage the audience not to sit down at all, too!)

Although the process through which architectural space impacts on psychological phenomena is not fully understood, one key process is through encouraging optimal levels of arousal (Davis et al, 2011). People function at their best, and are most satisfied, when they are optimally aroused (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003). Both under arousal and over arousal have been demonstrated detrimental psychological impact across many studies. Many of the impacts of space can be understood through impacting on the optimum level of arousal, attempting to provide sufficient, but not too much stimulation and invigoration to foster positive experiences. This has also been demonstrated in research focusing on optimal performance, where people in states of “flow” (where they are engaged appropriately in the activity at hand) is achieved when individuals have sufficient minimal levels of arousal to reduce the impacts of boredom, but not too much arousal as to provide anxiety (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).

Interestingly, recent work has demonstrated that the size of a room can have an impact on the level of openness of people who meet within it (Okken, Rompay, &  Pruyn, 2013). In the research, large rooms were shown to encourage people to be more open and rooms with higher ceilings were linked to increased levels of free, open, and creative thinking. One theory is that in high ceilinged rooms, individuals feel relatively unconstrained and can therefore impact on their thinking styles (Levy & Zhu, 2007).

However, psychology also indicates that a room can actually be too big. Vast spaces in which people are distant have been shown to impact on interaction and levels of creativity (Kallio, et al., 2015). I think the learning here is that the size of room for a networking event should very much be related to the number of people expected to attend. This might sound obvious but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has attended an event for 100 people in a room that could accommodate three times that amount.

Spaces that encourage interaction and communality have been found to increase interpersonal liking, which impacts on collaboration and the experience of space. Spaces that encourage chance encounters through managing serendipity can therefore increase bonds and connections between people as well as impact on well-being (Easterbrook, & Vignoles, 2014). An example illustrating this very unscientific sounding phenomenon would be offices in which the restroom, café, or other social areas are placed in the middle of an open plan space as opposed to within individual departments. Research on the impact of the creativity levels within Pixar, for example, has cited Steve Jobs’ decision to design its office in California in this very way as one of the reasons behind the huge levels of creativity.

Finally, it is not just the size of space that has been found to have impacts on psychological functioning—the shape is important, too. Curvilinear spaces have been found to be judged much more beautiful than rectilinear spaces (Vartanian et al., 2013) as well as been shown to elicit a more positive emotional impact from individuals through neuroimaging studies. Put simply, if you want to impact positively on the emotional reaction of visitors to your venue then psychology suggests the curvy rooms and furniture are the way to go.

This whole area is one laden with research, and I look forward to continuing the theme next time when I will look at why lighting, colour, views, temperature, and even the type of art you hang can affect visitor experience. FM




  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. New York: Penguin Group.
  • Danielsson, C. B. (2009). Difference in satisfaction with office environment among employees in different office types. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 26 (3), 241-257.
  • Davis, M. C., Leach, D. J., & Clegg, C. W. (2011). The Physical Environment of the Office: Contemporary and Emerging Issues. International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 26(1), 193–237.
  • Dazkir, S. and Read, M. (2011). Furniture Forms and Their Influence on Our Emotional Responses Toward Interior Environments. Environment and Behavior, 44(5), 722-732.
  • Easterbrook, M., & Vignoles, V. (2014). When friendship formation goes down the toilet: Design features of shared accommodation influence interpersonal bonds and well-being British Journal of Social Psychology, 54(1), 125-139.
  • Kallio, T. J., Kallio, K-M., Blomberg , A. J. (2015). Physical space, culture and organisational creativity – a longitudinal study, Facilities, 33 (5/6), 389 – 411.
  • Knight, C. & Haslam, S. A. (2010a). Your place or mine? Organizational identification and comfort as mediators of relationships between the managerial control of workspace and employees’ satisfaction and well-being. British Journal of Management, 21 (3,. 717-735.
  • Knight, C. & Haslam, S. A. (2010b). The relative merits of lean, enriched and empowered offices: An experimental examination of the impact of work space management strategies on well-being and productivity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16 (2), 158-172.
  • Levy, J. M. & Zhu, R. (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.
  • Maher, A. & von Hippel, C. (2005). Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25 (2), 219-229.
  • McElroy, J.C., & Morrow, P.C. (2010). Employee reactions to office redesign: A naturally occurring quasi-field experiment in a multi-generational setting. Human Relations, 63(5), 609–639.
  • Okken, V., van Rompay, T. & Pruyn, A. (2013). Room to move: On spatial constraints and self-disclosure during intimate conversations.  Environment and Behaviour, 45 (6), 737-760.
  • Vartaniana, O., Navarreteb, C, Chatterjeed, A., Brorson Fiche, L.,  Lederf, H., Modroñog, C., Nadalf, M., Rostruph, N., &  Skovi M. (2013). Impact of contour on aesthetic judgments and approach-avoidance decisions in architecture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (2), 10446-10453.

(Image: yornik Heyl/Creative Commons)

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