Anecdotally, there is plenty of evidence that people prefer things higher up over those things lower down. Heaven above, Hell below, of course, but more sectarian? Penthouse apartments. In the 1920s, America’s real estate boom lead to the construction of highrises and skyscrapers, capstoned by the construction of the Chrysler Building in 1928 (completed in 1930) and the Empire State Building in 1929 (completed in 1931). A magazine article from the November 1929 edition of Modern Mechanics (seen here) exclaimed: “Roofs of metropolitan skyscrapers are now the most sought-after and expensive sites for exclusive apartment dwellings. Rentals for some of the roof houses range around $2000 per room per year!”
Now, researchers have data suggesting that there’s more to this than mere anecdotes. In a series of four studies, as reported by Scientific American, University of North Carolina professor Larry Sanna found that four areas of prosocial behavior — donations, compassion, volunteering, and cooperation — positively correlated with altitude on one way or another. We just feel better about being higher up.
Two of the studies are particularly interesting. First, Sanna and his team monitored donations made to Salvation Army collectors, one stationed atop an escalator, and one stationed below. Shoppers who rode the escalator up were twice as likely to donate than those who rode downward. Similarly, when Sanna’s team brought a different group of people into an auditorium to take a survey, those who went to the stage — up — volunteered 50% more of their time than those who went into an orchestra pit — down.
The cause of this? Unstated, unfortunately. And the study — which one can read in full here – may help start explain our anecdotal fascination with reaching new heights.
Bonus fact: The Modern Mechanics article notes the existence of a top-of-the-line Fifth Avenue penthouse for $300,000. In today’s dollars (that is, accounting for inflation), that’s about $3.8 million. The Plaza Hotel, located on Fifth and 59th, recently converted many rooms into apartments, and you can buy one for roughly the same price, at $3,925,000. It’s not a penthouse apartment, though, nor even a five bedroom. It’s a 1,384 square foot one bedroom.
From the Archives: A Forgettable Theory: Going up makes us happy. Going through doors? Forget it!
Related: “View From The Top: 50 Great Apartments,” unreviewed. It is a book about fifty of the world’s “most magnificent penthouse apartments,” according to the publisher’s description.