Arranging for Serenity: How Physical Space and Emotion Intersect

Living room arranged with fengshui
August 15, 2008

Research by Williams and Bargh Featured in Scientific American

The concept of “psychological distance” may help explain the art of feng shui.

I AM A NEW AGE SKEPTIC. I used to be a New Age cynic, so this change shows how far I have come in opening my mind to things I do not understand. I no longer dismiss channeling and crystals and acupuncture as so much hocus-pocus, nor do I embrace these practices. I simply await proof.

I have to admit, though, that there is one New Age practice that has always had some intuitive appeal to me, and that’s feng shui. Feng shui is the ancient Chinese art of placement, which is based on the belief that space and distance and the arrangement of objects can affect our emotions and our sense of well-being. This idea makes sense to me on a gut level: I know that I feel a greater sense of psychological equilibrium in some spaces than I do in others. I just do not know why.

Psychologists have some ideas about this connection among physical space and thought and emotion—or what they call “psychological distance.” We have all had the sensation of being “too close” to a situation, needing to “get away” and “putting some distance” between ourselves and others. Our sense of emotional connectedness (or lack of it) is tightly entangled with our perception of geography and patterns in space.

Feel Crowded?
Two Yale University psychologists decided to explore the power of these perceptions in the laboratory, to see if indeed an ordered, open space affects people’s emotions differently than a tighter, more closed-in environment does. Put another way, do we automatically embody and “feel” things such as crowding or spaciousness, clutter or order?

Lawrence E. Williams and John A. Bargh ran a series of experiments to explore this question. All the studies began with what is called priming—the use of a cue to create an unconscious attitude or sensation. The researchers used a simple but effective technique: they had respondents graph two points, just as a person would on an ordinary piece of graph paper. In some graphs the points were very close together (for example: coordinates 2, 4 and –3, –1), whereas in others they were far apart (12, 10 and –11, –8). This exercise is known to bolster people’s unconscious feeling of either congestion or wide-open spaces.

Then the researchers tested the subjects in various ways. For example, in one study they had the participants read an embarrassing excerpt from a book, then asked them questions such as whether the passage was enjoyable or entertaining and whether they would like to read more of the same. Williams and Bargh wanted to see if a sense of psychological distance or freedom might mute emotional discomfort, and that result is exactly what they found. The volunteers who had been primed for spaciousness were less discomfited by the embarrassing experience; they found it much more enjoyable than did those who had a more pinched perception of the world.

The psychologists ran another version of the same experiment, in which the book excerpt was extremely violent rather than embarrassing. They got the same basic results. Subjects who had been primed for closeness found the violent events much more aversive—just as we find an airplane crash in our own neighborhood more upsetting than a crash 3,000 miles away. ­Williams and Bargh believe this tendency has to do with the brain’s deep-wired connec­tion between distance and safety, a habit of mind that probably evolved to help our hominid forebears survive in precarious conditions.

Peril and Distance
The psychologists wanted to explore more directly this link between psychological distance and real peril. As described in the March Psychological Science, they primed the participants’ minds in the usual way, then had them estimate the number of calories in both healthy food and junk food. They reasoned that the calories in french fries and chocolate are perceived as a health threat—emotionally dangerous—whereas the calories in brown rice and yogurt are not, and that people primed for closeness would be more sensitive to the threat. And that is what they found: those people who had been made to feel crowded and closed in thought there were more calories in junk food than did those who felt open and free. The two groups’ perceptions of healthy food were identical.

That is pretty convincing. But Williams and Bargh decided to run one more test, one that dealt head-on with the issue of personal security. The researchers asked all the subjects about the strength of their emotional bonds to their parents, siblings and hometown, and they found that those who had been primed for greater psychological distance reported weaker ties even to these important emotional anchors. Or, put another way, those subjects had more emotional detachment from the situation.

What is remarkable is that this all takes place unconsciously, apart from awareness: the spatial distance between two arbitrary objects (in this case, two mere dots on a graph) is apparently powerful enough to activate an abstract symbol of distance and safety in the brain, which in turn is powerful enough to shape our responses to the world. It is almost enough to make me move that vase a bit farther from the sofa and just a bit closer to that lamp over there.