Research Briefs

Research Brief: How Ceilings Affect Our Feelings

Image: John Towner

Virtual reality has become an important part of our lives. Designers, for example, now regularly create virtual reality spaces to test options with potential users of a place to be developed. All of us, regardless of profession, have probably spent some time in virtual spaces, either for fun or for work.

In a recent study, Han and colleagues from Stanford University investigated how ceiling height and floor area in immersive virtual reality environments influence the thoughts and behaviors, particularly the social interactions, of people who visit them. Their study is particularly noteworthy because of the length of time over which the data was collected.

It is reasonable to assume that the core of the Han team’s findings can be extrapolated to physical-world environments; the research team itself notes the consistency of human experience in the physical world and analogous virtual spaces.

The researchers had groups of 3 or 4 remote participants wear virtual reality headsets while participating in weekly 20-minute discussions in virtual spaces. Several virtual reality spaces were created, each with a low or high ceiling and a small or large floor area. Four forms of each of these four combinations (one example combination had a high ceiling and a small floor area) were developed, for a total of 16 spaces.

Image: Han et. al.

Participants created an avatar that was their representation in the virtual space, and they viewed and interacted with the space from a first-person perspective. The researchers collected data over a 4-week period through surveys distributed to participants and observations of behavior in the virtual spaces they created.

The authors were thoughtful about the size of the rooms. Low ceilings were about an arm’s length above the average avatar’s head (average height of 2.4 meters), while high ceilings were further off the ground than those found in most large rooms in the physical world, such as auditoriums (average height of 19.5 meters for the high ceilings). Small virtual rooms were about the size of conference rooms (mean size 85.6 square meters) and larger ones were stadiums (mean size 3817.5 square meters).

What did the researchers find?

According to the study’s findings, high ceilings had multiple benefits. Compared to low-ceiling scenarios, participants reported feeling more restored, more in awe, and more emotionally well. In high-ceilinged rooms, participants also paid more social attention, such as looking at other group members more.

In large-floor spaces, they reported feeling a greater sense of awe. And when both high ceilings and large floor space were combined, people stood farther apart than in the other combinations of conditions.

What does this mean for architecture?

The findings of this study are directly relevant in a number of contexts. For example, according to the authors, the findings of this research can be applied to the design of virtual social platforms, collaboration spaces, and areas that promote well-being. We can also extend these findings to the design of physical spaces.

Particularly important is the fact that according to the researchers: “VR eases the process of building awe-inspiring and restorative environments, as space is free, infinite, and easily accessible. Designers can tap into the positive properties of environments and create environments that are otherwise difficult to access for certain individuals.”

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Sally Augustin, PhD, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, is the editor of Research Design Connections, which reports and synthesizes (in everyday language) the findings of recent and classic research in neuroscience, cognitive science, and the social sciences that are useful to designers.

Dr. Augustin is also a practicing environmental psychologist, a principal at a consultancy Design With Science, and a founder of The Space Doctors. Her work has been discussed in publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and she holds leadership positions in professional organizations such as the Transdisciplinary Workplace Research Network and the Environmental Design Research Association.


Eugy Han, Cyan DeVeaux, Jeffrey Hancock, Nilam Ram, Gabriella Harari, and Jeremy Bailenson. 2024. “The Influence of Spatial Dimensions of Virtual Environments on Attitudes and Nonverbal Behaviors During Social Interactions.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 95, 102269,