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Psychological Responses to Architectural Interiors

People with autism, quasi-experts, and neurotypicals differ in what they like.

Key points

  • Preference for interior architectural spaces is influenced by psychological dimensions of Coherence, Fascination, and Hominess.
  • People with autism spectrum disorder respond to Coherence and Hominess while neurotypical people respond to Coherence and Fascination.
  • Quasi-experts in design respond only to Coherence.
Photo by Spacejoy on Unsplash.
Source: Photo by Spacejoy on Unsplash.

Oshin Vartanian co-authored this post.

In the halcyon days when we still visited people’s homes, the environment in which people lived offered clues to their personality and preferences (Gosling, 2008). For example, you might infer that a person is rigid if their home looked impeccably organized as if every piece of furniture inhabited a specific, unmovable location.

The same sensibility was probably also true of how we assessed workplaces. Undergraduates on campuses frequently wondered if a messy office reflected a disorganized professor. Often, the places that we occupy offer hints about individual differences and how those differences affect the choices we make about our environments.

Psychological Dimensions in Our Response to the Built Environment

As it turns out, growing evidence suggests that people’s preferences for architecture—or built spaces—is determined by three basic dimensions: Coherence (i.e., ease for organizing and comprehending a scene), Fascination (i.e., a scene’s informational richness that generates interest), and Hominess (i.e., how much space feels personal).

Coburn and colleagues (2020) recently collected data from large online samples that rated images of room interiors on many psychological factors (e.g., complexity, personalness, beauty, etc.). Those ratings were subjected to quantitative methods (principal components analysis, factor analysis, and psychometric network analysis), all of which converged on a 3-dimensional model for preference for indoor spaces.

Especially noteworthy, when fMRI data from an earlier neuroimaging study that used the same stimuli were reanalyzed about Coherence, Fascination, and Hominess, the results revealed that dissociable regions within the visual cortex were sensitive to each dimension, suggesting that separate neurological structures are attuned to each dimension.

Group Differences

Growing evidence suggests that factors that impact preferences in architecture (e.g., contour) exert their impact through affective and sensory processes. However, are preferences in everybody driven equally by the same three dimensions? Although whether a space feels personal may be important for choosing a restaurant to dine with friends and colleagues, is that dimension equally important to everyone? The answer is likely no.

To understand group differences, we focused on data that were collected by Palumbo et al. (2020) using the same stimuli as Coburn et al. (2020) to examine differences concerning three factors of architectural design (contour, ceiling height, and perceived enclosure). Palumbo and colleagues reasoned that persons with autism spectrum disorder would differ concerning those factors from neurotypical participants by virtue of exhibiting variation in affective and sensory processing.

Additionally, under formal training in architecture and design, they predicted that university-level students of industrial design would also differ from neurotypical people. As expected, their results demonstrated that the typically observed pattern of preference for curvilinear design was diminished in persons with autism spectrum disorder and that university-level students of industrial design preferred rectilinear over curvilinear design.

In a recently published study (2021), we focused on a different question. Would the extent to which Coherence, Fascination, and Hominess drive preferences differ among these groups—persons with autism spectrum disorder, university-level students of industrial design, and neurotypical participants? We predicted this because of formal training in architecture and design.

Coherence would influence university-level students of industrial design because it relies on the structural organization of spaces. Coherence can be viewed as a dispassionate factor, driven more by cognitive and sensory than emotional coloration. Perhaps our most theoretically interesting prediction involved persons with an autism spectrum disorder.

Specifically, members of this population do not display neurotypical proxemics—defined as the amount of space one needs for social relationships, communication, and social interaction. Rather, they exhibit reduced interpersonal space with other people and objects. This observation suggests that persons with autism spectrum disorder have a relatively small sense of personal and physical space.

As such, we expected Hominess to be particularly relevant for them, given that this dimension relies on how much space feels personal and familiar. Our results supported these predictions: for design students, only Coherence drove choices, whereas for people with autism spectrum disorder, Coherence along with Hominess, and for neurotypicals, Coherence and Fascination contributed.

Our work suggests that uniformity, as well as diversity, influences our preferences for architectural spaces. Not all psychological dimensions are equally important for all groups. Understanding this variability will allow us to consider optimizing living and working spaces for different groups of people.


Coburn, A., Vartanian, O., Kenett, Y. N., Nadal, M., Hartung, F., Hayn-Leichsenring, G., Navarrete, G., González-Mora, J. L., & Chatterjee, A. (2020). Psychological and neural responses to architectural interiors. Cortex, 126, 217-241.