Arranging For Serenity

I am a New Age skeptic. I used to be a New Age cynic, so this shows just how far I have come in opening my mind to things I don’t understand. I no longer dismiss channeling and crystals and acupuncture as so much hocus-pocus, nor do I embrace these practices. I disinterestedly 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, and it’s based on the belief that space and distance and arrangement of objects can affect our emotions and our sense of well-being. This 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 don’t know why.

Psychologists have some ideas about this connection between physical space and thought and emotion, or what they call “psychological distance.” We’ve all had the sensation of being “too close” to a situation, needing to “get away” and “put 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.

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

Lawrence Williams and John Bargh ran a series of experiments to test this out. All of the studies began with what’s called “priming” — the use of a cue to create an unconscious attitude or sensation. In this case, they used a very simple but well tested technique: They had respondents graph two points, just as you would on an ordinary piece of graph paper. But for some the points were very close together, for example, (2, 4) and (-3, -1), while for others they were far away, such as (12, 10) and (-8, -10). This simple exercise is known to bolster people’s unconscious feeling of either congestion or wide open spaces.

Then they 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 if the passage was enjoyable, or entertaining, whether they’d like to read more of the same, and so forth. They wanted to see if a sense of psychological distance or freedom might mute emotional discomfort, and that’s exactly what they found. Those who had been primed for spaciousness were less discomfited by the embarrassing experience; they found it much more enjoyable than did those with a pinched perception of the world.

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

The psychologists wanted to explore more directly this link between psychological distance and real peril, and they did so in an unusual way. As described in the March issue of 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. Their reasoning was 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, so that people primed for closeness would be more sensitive to the threat. And that’s what they found: Those who had been made to feel crowded and closed in thought there were more calories in junkfood than did those feeling open and free. Their perceptions of healthy food were identical.

So that’s pretty convincing. But Williams and Bargh decided to run one more test, one that dealt head-on with the issue of personal security. They asked all the subjects about the strength of their emotional bonds to their parents, siblings and hometown, and found that those with greater psychological distance had weaker ties even to these important emotional anchors. Or put another way, they had more emotional detachment from the world.

What’s remarkable is that this all takes place unconsciously, outside of 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’s almost enough to make me move that vase a bit farther from the sofa, and just a bit closer to that lamp over there.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.

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