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The built environment may in fact shape who we are

The area of situated or embodied cognition theory in psychology makes a provocative claim, but one that interior and architectural design practitioners have long known is true: what people perceive and act on may be influenced by what they physically sense with their bodies. Should this prove true, then the built environment that people use may influence how they see the world, what they believe and what they choose to do.

While there is debate about how significant the effect is from an environment on someone, and how long the effect lasts, the idea is a striking one. Take one study conducted by Yale researchers Lawrence Williams and John Bargh called Keeping One’s Distance: The Influence of Spatial Distance Cues on Affect and Evaluation” published in Psychological Science in 2008. In this study, the researchers exposed a control group of people to a cartesian grid, asking them to plot points that were visually far apart. A second, separate group plotted points visually close together. Then, they asked them questions including how strong their bond for family and home town was. A statistically significant group of people who plotted the points far across (and were primed for the idea of being ‘distant’) reported less affinity than the other group. The same was true when the groups’ level of empathy for a fictional book character was measured– the group that plotted the far-apart points felt less bonding, or affinity for the character.

So, how might this relate to the built environment, especially with regard to designing places and housing for persons in crisis? The researchers mused that people presented with visual stimuli of ‘far apartness’ (perhaps such as a tall ceiling instead of a short ceiling) may be more objective and more removed from feeling for other people and other ideas. It is not too far of a stretch to put together the idea that we should be constructing places where empathy for others is important in such a way that they are more, rather than less spatially intimate, in order to act on their naturally occurring tendency to remove– or insert themselves into being engaged and feeling for others. This may have interesting implications for homeless shelters with 400 beds, versus smaller ones with 40.

There are many more psychological studies in situated and embodied cognition that suggest a variety of natural tendencies, such as to assume that power differences are associated with upness, not down-ness, and elements in vertical arrangements have the good things at the top and things at the bottom are bad (there may be implications here for arrangements of rooms on various floors, or on signage design, for example). An evocative book on the subject of situated cognition and its relationships to architecture and interior design is Sarah Goldhagen’s Welcome to your World. If situated or embodied cognition ideas continue to hold up to scrutiny, they may bear close watching for their implications for spatial design.

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