In a recent study, psychologist Anne Maass investigated the effects of courthouse architecture on the psychological well-being and cognitive processes of potential users. Specifically, she compared two courthouses located in Padova, Italy: the old courthouse, located in a former convent originally built in 1345, and the new courthouse, built in 1991 and designed by Gino Valle, an internationally known architect. Although serving or having served the same purpose, the two buildings have completely different styles—one is an old building with a rather residential look, warm colors, large windows, and a large wooden door, the other a massive, gray, semi-circular building, with narrow windows, and an entrance enclosed between two huge walls.

When study participants were asked to imagine themselves accompanying a friend to the courthouse, they reported greater discomfort and stress when anticipating a trial in the modern building. However, contrary to predictions, this was true only when they were already familiar with the two buildings. It is possible that photographs reduced the actual impact of the architectural design, although this would contradict prior research by architect Gavin Stamp showing that distortions due to photographic presentation have negligible effects on preference. Another possibility for participants’ greater discomfort when imagining going to the new courthouse is that those with prior experience may have been exposed to the building from multiple angles, whereas unfamiliar participants received information only about the building’s facade.

It is important to note that participants did not generally dislike the new building. From the standpoint of general aesthetic distinctions such as beauty versus ugliness, no differences emerged between the two buildings; if anything, the new building was seen by the participants as slightly more attractive. The data suggest that participants responded more to the intimidating nature of the building than to its beauty.

The most important result of Maass’s research is that courthouse architecture was found to affect the estimated likelihood of conviction. Participants were more pessimistic about the trial outcome when they imagined entering the new building than when they imagined entering the old one. (This occurred regardless of whether participants had any prior familiarity with the respective buildings.) It remains unclear exactly which architectural features are responsible for the observed shift in likelihood of conviction estimates. The modern building differs on so many dimensions (size, color, shape, building materials, age, and so on) from the old building that it is impossible to isolate their individual impact. Also, it may be the interaction of features that creates the overall impression of the building as intimidating.

How exactly do architectural features affect social-cognitive processes such as likelihood estimates? One possibility is that design features affect the emotional well-being or mood of the user which, in turn, biases his or her thought processes. For example, the architectural characteristics of the new courthouse seem to have made hypothetical users feel anxious and tense, and a bad mood has been shown to induce negative thoughts and expectations. However, building type affected perceived likelihood of conviction also for those participants who showed no enhanced discomfort in reaction to the new building.
Another and more plausible possibility is that the design features of the new courthouse activated specific thoughts and mental associations related to conviction. For example, some participants spontaneously commented that the new building has greater resemblance to a prison than to a courthouse; others mentioned that the two high walls enclosing the entrance give the impression that those who enter the building are already convicted.

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