Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Let’s go into space

August 1st, 2011

Personal space, at I Can Has CheezburgerI live alone*, so I seldom have to worry about personal space. I can make almost all my decisions while still having room to turn cartwheels, and until today, it had never occurred to me that this was relevant.

As it turns out, it’s definitely relevant. We make choices – including choices about helping others – in distinctly different ways depending on whether or not we feel crowded.

Research on this began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the concept of “personal space” came to the attention of psychologists. First came the discovery that when an individual’s personal space was invaded, he or she almost always froze and looked away, and often moved to escape. (Imagine. Next they’ll prove that positive emotions are associated with the corners of the mouth moving upward.) Fortunately, it got more interesting after that.

A 1975 study looked at the effects of personal space invasion on helping behaviours. The researchers had an experimenter stand at different distances (between 1 and 10 feet) from an unsuspecting pedestrian waiting at a crosswalk. Once the light changed, the experimenter hurried to cross the road and – apparently by accident – dropped his or her keys in front of the pedestrian. Most pedestrians, even those who had been visibly uncomfortable when the experimenter had stood too near them, were quick to point out or return the dropped keys, which says nice things about us as a species. However, if the experimenter dropped an unimportant item (a pencil), proximity made a difference: experimenters standing at polite distances were much more likely to get their pencils returned than were those standing inappropriately close.

The BirdsThese results suggested to researcher Robert Baron that feeling crowded only inhibits our helpfulness when there isn’t much need for help. So, Baron had experimenters sit very close or quite far from his study participants while asking them to help with a complex project. Half the time, this project was “just for fun” while the rest of the time, it supposedly counted for half the experimenter’s grade in a university course.

The previous results held up. When the experimenter’s need for help appeared high, the participants offered more assistance when he came too close. However, when his need was low, they offered more help when he kept his distance.

Here’s another interesting research result. A study that came out last week looked at crowding and its effect on purchasing choices. It found that people who felt crowded due to circumstances beyond their control tended to buy distinctive products that expressed their individuality. People who felt crowded but thought of it as voluntary were more likely to buy products that matched those other people were choosing.

So, what can we do with this? We often can’t control how crowded our surroundings are, but we can adapt our behaviours based on them.

Close Talker, by Doug SavageIf the person you’re talking to appears to feel crowded, don’t ask for anything trivial; save that for when you have more space. If your audience has chosen to cluster together, offer them popular choices that will let them feel part of a group. If they’re clumped together against their will, give them a chance to demonstrate their individuality.

And if they’re Canadians, give them lots and lots of space. Preferably with trees in it.


* except for a team of obstreperous, cuddle-addicted, neurotic quadrupeds that claim to be members of Felis catus. Personally, I suspect Gulo gulo in disguise.

3 comments on 'Let’s go into space'

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  1. Rob

    2 Aug 11 at 9:06 am

    “Personally, I suspect Gulo gulo in disguise.”

    No, those are your stepchildren. Common mistake!


    Carol Reply:

    Darn, I always get that wrong. It’s the pointy little teeth that confuse me.


  2. Rob

    4 Aug 11 at 2:22 pm

    Imagine how our dentists feel!


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