New study uncovers links between geometrical shapes and perceived sacredness

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A new study in the journal Perception has examined what geometrical shapes and environmental factors people associate with sacredness.

The study of 137 university students from diverse religious backgrounds found that vertical and tall shapes were strongly associated with sacredness, dominance, and attractiveness. Spheres and cylinders were more often linked to sacredness, while angular shapes were more often linked to dominance. Overall, the pyramid and sphere were the geometrical figures that best conveyed sacredness.

The researchers also found that secluded areas were considered more sacred than accessible and open areas, and elevated places were considered more sacred than low-lying areas.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Marco Costa of the University of Bologna. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Costa: Throughout history and geographic diversity men have developed specific environments and architectures to express a sense of sublime, sacredness, and to fulfill their spiritual needs. There was a lack of scientific evidence about possible geometrical, environmental factors that could contribute to the perception of sacredness, and our interest was to investigate if basic geometrical properties such as elevation, shape could contribute to the perception of sacredness. Furthermore we were interested to link sacredness with the perception of attractiveness and dominance.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Sacredness is strictly linked to geometrical, environmental features. Physical elevation and height are the most important predictors which are exploited in nearly all religions. Tall buildings, high places, mountain peaks are perceived as more sacred. Prohibition and inaccessibility are also important. A concealed, inaccessible place acquires a special psychological status, and in many religions the most sacred places are accessible only to specific persons. Geometrical figures that convey a sense of elevation as the triangle and the pyramid, or that have a perfect symmetry as the sphere are best suited to express a sense of sacredness in comparison to geometrical figures that are more “flat” and have more angles as the cube or the parallelepiped.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

It would be interesting to explore other environmental variables such as color, light. Furthermore the study was conducted on sample of Italian students. It would be interesting to expand the sample to people of other cultures.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Many contemporary churches and religious environments are built without considering the critical factors that are highlighted in our study, and this leads in many cases to churches that are not perceived as expressing “sacredness” due to their minimalistic design, with sharp angles, without decorations. Many contemporary religious buildings are perceived as “cold” and distant. We think that an integration of environmental psychologists in the design process of new religious buildings, together with architects, religious experts, engineers, could be extremely positive.

The study, “Geometrical Factors in the Perception of Sacredness,” was also co-authored by Leonardo Bonetti.

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