Door hardware is often one of the last things we think about when building or renovating. It’s often not adequately allowed for in the budget and when it is, it sometimes ends up being at the bottom of the list in terms of allowances.

When left to builders, they will often recommend ‘cheap’ as over against form and function and often push consumers to the product in their pre start up show room. Or, to a product which returns them a rebate from the supplier.

In addition, and with the greatest respect, sometimes even architects and designers can be woefully uneducated on the subject and will often recommend;

  • Door Hardware that isn’t of the same quality as the building
  • Door Hardware that doesn’t match the building in terms of style or finish
  • A product that they know and have always specified
  • A cheap product to stay within the budget
  • Cabinet handles that don’t match the door hardware in terms of style and finish

Why your door handle selection is critical

The door handle, like the front entrance, is the first thing seen from the street and first impressions count. Just as you form a judgement of someone within seconds of meeting them, so it is with the front of a house.

Your opinion of the house and those who reside within is established either as a positive or negative thought. Just as an unkempt appearance in a person may lead, rightly or wrongly, to a negative first impression and conclusion, so it is with our houses.

In addition, over the course of its life, a handle is touched up to a million times. More than any other item in the house. It should therefore look good, feel good, work as intended and adorn the house as a final touch of artistry and grandeur. Shouldn’t it?

What has psychology got to do with handles?

Psychology is the scientific study of how people behave, think and feel. It may seem strange that psychology could apply to an item as common as the door handle.

However, it is precisely because of the door handle’s commonality that it is so. Like our phones, computers and cars and many often used items, the door or cabinet handles in our lives get touched just as much or more.

Therefore it is the sub conscious effect they have rather than the conscious awareness of them that affects us. That is why it is important to understand how this works.

There are several evidenced based reasons why this is so. The starting point is obviously Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow posited that humans have basic needs by which they live and either just survive or indeed thrive.

1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs[i]

Maslow wanted to understand what motivates people. He believed that people possess a set of motivation systems unrelated to rewards or unconscious desires.the-psychology-of-door-and-cabinet-handles-v-7

Maslow (1943) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs, and that some needs take precedence over others. When one need is fulfilled a person seeks to fulfil the next one, and so on.

The earliest and most widespread version of Maslow’s (1943, 1954) hierarchy of needs includes five motivational needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. (See illustration right)

This five stage model can be divided into basic (or deficiency) needs (e.g. physiological, safety) and growth needs (e.g. love, and esteem) which relate to fulfilling our human potential (self-actualization) and is as follows;

Hierachy Of Needs
  1. Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sleep.
  2. Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.
  3. Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, affection and love, – from work group, family, friends, relationships
  4. Esteem needs – achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others.
  5. Self-Actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfilment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

The deficiency, or basic needs are said to motivate people when they are unmet. Also, the need to fulfil such needs will become stronger the longer the duration they are denied. For example, the longer a person goes without food the more hungry they will become.[ii]

One must satisfy lower level deficit needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. When a deficit need has been satisfied it will go away. However growth needs continue to be felt and may even become stronger once they have been engaged. Once these growth needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualization.[iii]

Every person is capable and has the desire to move up the hierarchy toward a level of self – actualization. Unfortunately, progress is often disrupted by failure to meet lower level needs. Life experiences, including divorce and loss of job may cause an individual to fluctuate between levels of the hierarchy.

Maslow noted only one in a hundred people become fully self-actualized because our society rewards motivation primarily based on esteem, love and other social needs.[iv]

As you can see, two out of the five are psychological needs, however it can be argued that all five areas have a psychological effect, especially the first four in relation to this subject.

Let’s analyse each level to explain how they affect our buying decisions and also have a psychological effect upon us.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs & door handles

Need How it affects us
Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sleep. The door hardware protects us, affords privacy, shuts out the cold and gives us security. These are not things we consciously think of.
Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear. Door hardware has a very important part in this respect – protection from the elements, our security (stops intruders), gives order and allows us freedom from fear.
Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, affection and love, – from work group, family, friends, relationships Once again, without the protection and privacy door hardware affords us, our needs in this regard would be affected.
Esteem needs – achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others. There is nothing that brings greater pride than the way you have designed and decorated the first thing you see – the front entrance. And a quality handle adds prestige and earns respect.
Self-Actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfilment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. The hardware you use is a fulfilment of your status in life just as much as your car, your watch or your pen!

2. Humans and the sub conscious mind

Humans operate mostly at a sub conscious level. Freud[v] likens it to an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see. The unconscious mind is the primary source of human behaviour and is responsible for most of what we do. [vi]  Yes indeed, the unconscious mind is running us on its automatic pilot mode, 95% of the time![vii]

Neuroscientists have shown that the conscious mind provides 5% or less of our cognitive (conscious) activity during the day – and 5% they say is for the more aware people, many people operate at just 1% consciousness.[viii]

The unconscious mind operates at 40 million bits of data per second, whereas the conscious mind processes at only 40 bits per second. So the unconscious mind is much more powerful than the conscious mind, and it is the unconscious mind which shapes how we live our life.[ix]

Science can clearly prove that most of our decisions, actions, emotions and behaviour depend on the 95% of brain activity that is beyond our conscious awareness, which means that 95 – 99% of our life, activities and decisions come from the programming in our subconscious mind.[x]

3. Door hardware and the sub conscious mind

Man With Handle In Head 1

Sub conscious behaviour explained

Driving your automobile is a very good example of the sub conscious at work. Do you ever consciously think about your feet on the accelerator, the clutch or the break pad? Do you tell yourself, ‘now I must turn the wheel, put on the indicator or switch on the lights’? No you do not, you have done these things so many times that it is an unconscious action which you perform automatically, many times a day without ever giving it a thought!

However, the overall experience is at a conscious level. If the car is a quality car, the air-conditioning works, it is safe, it is comfortable and it gets you there on time, we feel good and enjoy the experience. All the elements that led to that enjoyable experience however were at a sub conscious level. If any one of the elements were missing, then suddenly the subconscious comes out of hibernation and you are very much aware of them!

Merleau – Ponty advances in his seminal work, ‘The Phenomenology of Perception’, what is in effect a new concept of experience. His aim is to realign our philosophical understanding of perception and the body with things we are always already familiar with before we begin to reflect and theorize. What we can learn from Merleau – Ponty’s efforts is thus something we already knew, if only tacitly, something we acquire neither from logical analysis nor from empirical inquiry. In this way, his work performs the recollective function of philosophy as Plato conceived it: to remind us in a flash of recognition what we feel we must already have comprehended, but had forgotten precisely owing to our immersion in the visible world.[xi]

The subconscious mind and the use of handles

Why is this important in the context of door and cabinet handles? Because when you use your door hardware, it is at a subconscious level. The house or building is like the car. There are many parts that make up a house. The roof, the structure, the power supply, the hardware and so on!

Then there is the furnishing, the architecture, the landscaping and the design. Individually, you don’t think of them very often, but at a subconscious level, their functionality and quality are affecting the overall experience of living in the building or working in the office.

Every element has to be right for the overall experience to be positive. If the power stops, if the door handle doesn’t work, if the cabinet hardware doesn’t match the door hardware or is badly manufactured, then the experience is diminished.

Conversely, if the building is beautifully designed and constructed, if the fit out is high quality and if the fittings and furniture are equally good, then the conscious appreciation is very good.

4. Emotions verses rationality

Although we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, absorbing information, weighing it carefully, and making thoughtful decisions, many of our most crucial choices are made by what we call hunches, and a somewhat automatic reaction that is beyond or beneath consciousness.

We like to refer to this feeling as intuition (“I have a very good feeling about this house or handle”), but the reality is that this “intuition” is an established part of emotion-based or sub conscious predilection.[xii]

A BMO[xiii] study found that 80 per cent of likely buyers know if the home is right as soon as they cross the threshold! How can they – they can’t! A smart front entrance can increase the value of a residence by up to ten percent because of the ‘first perception’ phenomena. This points to the fact that emotion, not rationale or analysis, have a much greater impact on a consumer.

Rich and powerful mental representations of a product include its personality. Research reveals that consumers perceive the same type of personality characteristics in products as they do in other people. And just like with people, they are attracted more to some personality types than others – attractions which are emotion based, not rational.

Brand personality is communicated by marketers through packaging, visual imagery, and the types of words used to describe the brand. The influential role of emotion in consumer behaviour is well documented[xiv]:

  • FMRI neuro-imagery shows that when evaluating brands and products, consumers primarily use emotions (personal feelings and experiences) rather than information (brand attributes, features, and facts).
  • Advertising research reveals that emotional response to an ad has far greater influence on a consumer’s reported intent to buy a product than does the ad’s content – by a factor of 3 to1 for television commercials and 2 to 1 for print ads.
  • Research conducted by the Advertising Research Foundation concluded that the emotion of “likeability” is the measure most predictive of whether an advertisement will increase a brand’s sales.
  • Studies show that positive emotions toward a brand have far greater influence on consumer loyalty than trust and other judgments which are based on a brand’s attributes.

How is this relevant to the subject? Because the same principle applies to the door hardware used in the building. If the right buying decisions were made at the time, the consumer or user will be left with happy underlying emotions when using the hardware. If the wrong decisions were made, the converse will apply.

The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten – Benjamin Franklin. You can read more about this subject here.

5. Haptics & optics

The term haptics in its broadest sense relates to the study of touch and the cutaneous senses. The word itself derives from the Greek haptikos, able to touch. The haptic senses may be categorised in a number of ways. Most obviously we have those active tactile senses generally associated with the concept of touch, with which we ‘feel’ and interact directly with our external environment. Our hands are clearly key locations for this group of senses.

These senses link most closely with the kinaesthetic senses, the brain’s awareness of the position and movement of the body by means of sensory nerves within the muscles and joints. With the addition of the variety of internal sensitivity within the body all these are collectively described by the term somaesthesia, the sense associated with body contact; the skin senses.

It is difficult to describe in words the meaning of forms because it is precisely this emotion which is conveyed by sculpture alone. Our sense of touch is a fundamental sensibility which comes into action at birth – our stereognostic sense – the ability to feel weight and form and assess its significance.

The place where you enter is the window to the soul of what’s inside and the door handle is the nexus between the senses and the physical experience.

Why is haptics important? The place where you enter is the window to the soul of what’s inside and the door handle is the nexus between the senses and the physical experience. Not only is it the nexus – it embodies art, security, form and function.

Whilst the exterior of a beautiful house can be admired, inspected and discussed; In addition to these experiences, a beautiful handle can also be touched. There is something about the feel of a beautiful handle, lovingly designed, exquisitely crafted, and hand finished.

There is something of the spirit of the designer still residing – exuding something of the artisan, a sense of spirit and satisfaction.

Indeed, the door handle, one of the smallest of architectural elements, can exert the most powerful of impacts. Architecture is usually seen as an art expressed through space and light, as if it were somehow apart from our bodies.

It is our sense of touch which introduces us to the building. It is the weight, solidity and texture of the handle which guides us across the threshold, which gives us our first impression of the architecture.

Like the building itself, the handle is not a static object but a small piece of sculpture which bears the traces and memories of use, abuse and the lives of those who have briefly touched it.

The door handle is also more than a functioning object that has to arrange optics and haptics in a special way: it represents the haptic – physical contact with a house’s architecture. And although you may only have it in your hands for seconds, sometimes not using it for days, the haptic is as crucial as the optic.[xv]

6. Ingrained history – the subconscious DNA

What was it about handles – door handles, axe handles, the handles of pitchers and vases – that transfixed thinkers in Vienna and Berlin during the early decades of the twentieth century, echoing earlier considerations of handles in America and ancient Greece?[xvi]

And talk about antiquity! Wooden doors and door handles first appeared around 5,000 years ago, as evidenced by paintings in the tombs of wealthy Egyptians.[xvii]  The oldest known lock was found by archaeologists in the Khorsabad palace ruins near Nineveh. It was estimated to be 4,000 years old.

Locks and keys were known long before the birth of Christ. They are mentioned frequently in the Old Testament and in mythology. In the Book of Nehemiah it is stated that when repairing the old gates of the City of Jerusalem – probably in 445 B.C. – they “set up the doors thereof, and the locks thereof, and the bars thereof.” At this time, locks were made of wood. They were large and crude in design; yet their principle of operation was the forerunner of the modern pin-tumbler locks of today.

Sufficient to add, if they had locks – they had handles! Solomon refers to them; “and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock”. This was written in B.C. 1012.

There are some things that are in our genes, in the very make up of our beings. We live them, breathe them and are them. We have lived in houses for thousands of years – we don’t think about whether we will or not – that’s just what we do. Amongst other things, a house represents shelter, warmth, family and freedom from fear. These are all things that we enjoy but don’t consciously think of – it’s axiomatic.

Along with the house goes the handle – it also represents these attributes. And so it is, that the handle has been imbedded into our sub conscious over thousands of years – no wonder, when we pause to consider it, we feel our affection welling up for this small but exquisite piece of ironmongery!

Long live the door handle!


[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid




[viii] ibid

[ix] ibid

[x] ibid