How high do you feel? Research shows it matters

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Sub-title: 

Try standing up to ponder those abstract "why" questions, sitting down to tackle pragmatic "how"

Author: 

Patchen Barss

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photo of Professor Aggarwal at UTSC

Sitting in a higher chair could improve your long-term financial planning. You might be more likely to buy serious tomes on the second floor of a bookstore, and to pick up lighter reading from the ground floor or basement.

The top level of a shopping mall is where customers might consider acquiring a buyer-assembled, multi-functional piece of furniture, while the lower levels are better for simple, pre-fab products.

These are some of the implications of new research, which reveals how height – even perceived height – can affect mental processes and decision-making.

The study, conducted by University of Toronto Scarborough and Rotman School of Management marketing professor Pankaj Aggarwal and his Rotman colleague Min Zhao (pictured left) reveals that when test subjects believe they are physically higher up – on a tall stool or a top floor – they are more likely to consider a “big-picture” approach to a decision.

“It may be more effective for stores located on a higher level of a mall to promote rich features, superior functions, or performance of their products,” says Aggarwal. “It may be more effective for stores on a lower level to promote feasibility aspects such as high convenience or ease of usage for their products.”

It all has to do with a phenomenon known as “mental construal,” which basically refers to “where one’s head is at” when making a decision. A person in a higher-level state of mental construal makes decisions based on questions of “Why?” while lower-level mental construal focuses on the immediate logistics of “How?” It’s the difference between “Why do I need a new desk?” and “How am I going to get this thing set up in my office?”

Over the course of six studies – including subjects sitting at different heights, being told they were on different floors of a building, and even doing a word search containing either the word “high” or “low” – Aggarwal and Zhao found that perceived physical height directly affected whether test subjects took a metaphorical “50,000-foot view” or “street level” approach to decisions.

Their results tally with a wide body of research that demonstrates correlations between physical distance and mental distance, and even physical warmth and mental warmth.

“Physical concepts get translated into more high-level mental concepts. Our studies have so far been more conceptual and theoretical in the lab,” says Aggarwal. But he already sees very practical possibilities for this research. “Maybe at the grocery store the chocolates and the candies should be on the lower floor, but all the healthy green veggies should be on the higher.”

The study is available online and will appear in the upcoming edition of the Journal of Marketing Research.

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