Workers have long been concerned about glass ceilings at the office. Now they can wonder if the physical ceiling is keeping them from their full mental potential.

A recent study at the University of Minnesota suggests that ceiling height affects problem-solving skills and behavior by priming concepts that encourage certain kinds of brain processing.

"Priming means a concept gets activated in a person's head," researcher Joan Meyers-Levy told LiveScience. "When people are in a room with a high ceiling, they activate the idea of freedom. In a low-ceilinged room, they activate more constrained, confined concepts."

Either can be good

The concept of freedom promotes information processing that encourages greater variation in the kinds of thoughts one has, said Meyers-Levy, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota. The concept of confinement promotes more detail-oriented processing.

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The study consisted of three tests ranging from anagram puzzles to product evaluation.

In every tested situation, a 10-foot ceiling correlated with subject activity that the researchers interpreted as "freer, more abstract thinking," whereas subjects in an 8-foot room were more likely to focus on specifics.

In one test subjects were more critical of a product's design flaws when evaluation took place in a shorter room. This result could have important implications for retailers.

Religious experience

The theory that priming a concept in someone's brain might encourage a certain type of mental processing is not backed up by much evidence from neuroscience or even experimental psychology.

However, one 2002 study found that priming subjects with either the concept of "self" or that of "other" encourages types of processing that reflect themes of isolation or unity, respectively.

Meyers-Levy and co-researcher Rui (Juliet) Zhu of the University of British Columbia formed their new hypothesis after this and other work that has shown how conceptual priming affects perception and behavior.

The labeling for their somewhat abstract concepts, "freedom" and "confinement," comes from a speculative paper on how lofty cathedral ceilings might encourage a different religious experience from the low ceilings of a modest chapel.

Theirs may be the first empirical study to make use of these terms in describing concepts that influence behavior.

Meyers-Levy and Zhu will publish their results this August in the Journal of Consumer Research. But Meyers-Levy thinks her study has wide-reaching applications outside the marketplace.

"Managers should want noticeably higher ceilings for thinking of bold initiatives. The technicians and accountants might want low ceilings."

There could be consequences in the world of health care as well, she said. "If you're having surgery done, you would want the operating room to encourage item-specific processing."

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