Cathy Arnst

Seems like every new house I've walked into the last several years has a great room with a cathedral ceiling. I used to think that these were a tremendous drain on energy--hard to heat, hard to cool--but now I discover their advantage. High ceilings encourage abstract thinking. Low ceilings, on the other hand, encourage a person to think analytically and focus on details.

That's the conclusion of a study by two marketing professors at the University of Minnesota. Joan Meyers-Levy and Juliet Zhu performed several experiments in a pair of rooms identical except for ceiling height--one was eight feet high, the other 10 feet. Lighting was adjusted to either draw attention to ceiling height or distract from it, and at each change of light participants completed tasks on abstract and concrete thought. Their findings:

When participants were aware of the height, high ceilings activated abstract thinking and thoughts of freedom, whereas low ceilings activated concrete thinking and thoughts of confinement.

However, Meyers-Levy emphasizes that the advantages of high ceilings have much to do with the task at hand. If a person is developing broad initiatives for a university, for example, a job requiring abstract thought, high ceilings should help make the task easier. Yet if a person is studying financial data sheets for the same initiative, a lower ceiling will encourage detailed, analytical thought.

I've decided that this study explains why my daughter is so sloppy about following every instruction on her homework, and I am less than detail-oriented. We live in an 1870s building with 10 foot ceilings, what do you expect? I'm going to look on the bright side and figure I'm raising an Einstein, not an accountant.

Now, I want everyone to go to a high-ceilinged room and think about the significance of all this.