How Big Is Your Personal Space?
As much as we like being around other people, we also cherish our personal space. If we sense any kind of violation to our space, we feel uncomfortable. Simply think back to those bus rides you took during rush hours and you will remember how irritating it felt to be so unnecessarily close to strangers.
Studies show that people tend to keep their distance from others when they feel threatened by them. If we perceive a situation to be hostile and uncomfortable, we make our personal bubble bigger. The urge to protect our personal space make sense when we can see angry people close by. But, would we feel a similar urge to protect ourselves when we accidentally overhear a conversation that is loud and aggressive?
Eleonora Vagnoni, PhD who is a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University and colleagues wondered about the same question and did a study to find out the impact of listening to aggressive conversations on people’s personal space.
What is ‘personal space’?
Social psychologists define personal space as “the emotionally-tinged zone” around the human body. Cognitive neuroscientists, on the other hand, offer two interpretations regarding personal space: 1) space for action 2) space to defend oneself.
The first interpretation refers to the space necessary for grabbing and manipulating objects. For example, we can walk in a cluttered room without bumping into objects because of the brain’s ability to calculate distance from objects around us. Moreover, our personal space expands when we feel anxious and defensive. As such, the mental representation we have of the space around our body is not fixed. It shrinks and expands depending on the context we are in.
Vagnoni and her research team investigated whether people’s personal space is influenced by listening to conversations with aggressive versus neutral content.
The researchers worked with two actors (male and female) and recorded two types of conversation. The neutral conversation was about a first date and the aggressive one was about a drunk fight. The conversations were not scripted. Vagnoni and colleagues also recorded the sound of approaching footsteps by a woman.
The participants (33 total) first listened to the conversations and then to the approaching footsteps recording. They wore a blindfold and noise cancelling headphones while listening to the recordings. After listening to the footsteps recording, the participants were asked to press the keyboard key “p” when they felt that the footsteps were too close and made them feel uncomfortable.
Participants in the aggressive condition stopped the approaching footsteps recording earlier (201.63 seconds vs. 204.04 seconds) than those in the neutral condition. In other words, just hearing footsteps approaching after listening an emotionally loaded conversation was enough for participants to feel to urge to protect their personal space.
Researchers suggest that “Perceived threat from others represents a crucial factor in mediating the equilibrium between interpersonal space and social interaction.” What the brain picks up as threatening in a situation – to an extent – determines how much space we are willing to give up while interacting with others as we simultaneously protect ourselves.
We are bombarded with an array of information from different sensory modalities in real-life contexts. As such, this study is an important step in investigating the effects of threatening auditory stimuli on personal space. Moreover, paying attention to your personal boundaries in a variety of contexts will help you gain greater insight into your feelings and how you interact with your environment.
- 1. Vagnoni E., Lewis J., Tajadura-Jime ́nez A., & Cardini F. (2018). Listening to a conversation with aggressive content expands the interpersonal space. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0192753.