A new study suggests that people feel more comfortable talking about private matters in a larger room at a larger desk. It’s a result with obvious practical implications for professionals who require openness from their clients.
Vanessa Okken and her colleagues allocated their 86 participants (average age 22; 38 men) to speak to a female Masters student in one of four situations – at a small desk (80cm interpersonal distance) in a small (16 square meters) or larger room (19.8 square meters); or at a large desk (160cm interpersonal distance) in the same small or larger room.
The participants were videoed answering questions posed by the young woman about substance use, sexuality and emotions. She was unaware of the purpose of the study. The video camera was arranged in such a way that the coders who later assessed the participants’ answers were unaware of the setting.
Afterwards the participants said they’d felt more at ease and less inhibited in the larger room and this appeared to be because they felt it was more spacious. Further analysis showed that room size only led to feelings of greater openness when participants were sat at a large desk. It’s possible the intimacy of a small desk overpowers the liberating effect of a larger room.
Participants also behaved differently in the various physical situations. In the larger room, they leant forward more and had a more open posture. They leant on the larger desk more than they did on the small desk. In the larger room, they also made more eye contact at a large desk compared with a small desk.
For the crucial test of how much the participants revealed in their answers, the results varied according to the interview topics. Sometimes the room size made a difference, sometimes the desk. For instance, participants used more words talking about substance use in the larger room. Talking about sexuality, participants used more words, talked for longer, and referred to themselves more often at a larger desk. Regarding discussion of emotions, including loneliness, participants’ answers were more intimate in a larger room and this appeared to be because they felt the room was more spacious.
Okken’s team said their findings have practical implications. “The differences in effects per topic call for adopting a flexible environment (i.e. extendible desks) that can be easily altered to fit the needs of a large variation in conversations,” they said. “To influence room size, room dividers may be used, when resorting to another (smaller or larger) room is not an option. Furthermore, room layout and positioning of other furniture pieces can influence the amount of space available and in turn possibly influence self-disclosing behaviour.”
These are intriguing results but one problem is the lack of any assessment of the interviewer’s behaviour. Although she was blind to the purpose of the study, it’s possible that room and desk changes affected her interview style and that it was this that explained at least some of the results. As the researchers acknowledged, it was also disappointing that the participants’ greater feelings of openness were associated with so few actual differences in disclosure – most measures such as time spent talking led to null results.
V Okken, T van Rompay, & A Pruyn (2013). Room to move: On spatial constraints and self-disclosure during intimate conversations. Environment and Behaviour DOI: 10.1177/0013916512444780