Warning: Don't Make Big Decisions From High Elevations

'Elevation effect' was only a factor when people could actually see how high up they were. nd3000/Shutterstock

You definitely don’t want to have your head in the clouds when making a crucial financial decision. But who could have thought our decisions are literally influenced by altitude?

As in, what floor you happen to be on when mulling something over.

If it’s a high elevation, like the top floor of an office tower, chances are you’ll embrace risk a little more than you would on the ground floor, according to researchers from Miami University.

The study, published this month in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, suggests you may want a financial advisor to work from a ground-floor office rather than the penthouse.

And it gives new, literal emphasis to the idea that you should stay grounded when making big decisions.

"When you increase elevation, there is a subconscious effect on the sense of power," lead author Sina Esteky, PhD, noted in a release. "This heighted feeling of power results in more risk-seeking behavior."

For the study, Esteky’s team interviewed people as they were ascending and descending in the glass elevator of a tall building. They found the direction of the elevator strongly influenced the level of risk-aversion among participants.

They were more likely, for instance, to take more gambles on the way to the 74th floor — but their decisions became far more grounded as they neared, well, the ground.

Tall office buildings.
Participants in the study tended to embrace more risk as they ascended in an elevator. Tomas Cepulis/Shutterstock

Another experiment focused on people who were either on the ground floor or the third floor of a university building. Each group was asked to make 10 decisions of varying risk levels. Guess which group made the most risky decisions?

What was it about higher elevations that emboldened the participants? Researchers theorized it could have something to do with the perception that elevation gives people a sense of power and unassailability.

Risk seems a lot smaller when seen from above — literally.

That idea seemed to hold true in further experiments. When participants were told their decisions were being influenced by elevation, the effect completely dissipated. Likewise, "elevation effect" wasn’t a factor for people mired in cubicles who couldn’t see how high up they were.

"The important lesson is that when people become aware of the potential impact of elevation, it doesn't happen anymore," Esteky says. "The brain is very susceptive to subtle situational factors, but also really good at correcting for such effects, so awareness can help us be more rational in our decisions."