You know that creepy feeling when the guy standing behind you in line gets a little too near to you. So near that you can even hear the music pounding through his headphones. You try to shift forward a bit but then realize that you’re making the person in front of you feel uncomfortable. What to do?
According to research on the psychology of personal space, the distance around each of us can be divided into 4 zones. The one closest to ourselves is the “intimate” space, and only goes to about 18 inches away from our face. Next out from this central zone is what is technically called the “personal” space, which covers about another 2-1/2 feet to reach a distance of 4 feet away from the tip of the nose. Next is a pretty large zone called “social” space, which goes from 4 to as many as 12 feet away from you. After that, it’s public space all the way.
We admit the people we love into our intimate zone, but we’re bothered by friends and strangers who venture too near or even over that border. Cultures differ in what they regard as appropriate boundaries of personal space and as a result, travelers to foreign countries would be well warned to check out the norms of the societies they are visiting.
These norms for personal space have developed over many thousands of years and may have something to do with norms for intimacy, self-expression, and privacy. Americans are known for valuing their individualism and autonomy, which translates into great sensitivity to the violation of their private spaces. Oddly enough, everyone except the truly phobic will make an exception when there’s no escaping the crowd. Somehow, our personal space craving senses are willing to balance the inner sense of discomfort against the exigencies of the situation. Clearly, then, there’s no inherent definition for the zones of personal space.
As culturally and situationally relative as they are, the zones of personal space may have a biological basis. Cal Tech neuroscientist Ralph Adolphs and his team (2009) conducted an unusual case study in which they observed the reactions of a 42-year old woman who had suffered damage to the amygdala on both sides of her brain. First, however, they simply asked her to indicate at what distance she felt comfortable with the distance between herself and the experimenter. In each of 32 separate trials, the subject said that she felt comfortable at any distance, including nose-to-nose. The experimenters even put her in a situation when she didn’t know she was being tested as one of the male research assistants engaged her in conversation while standing far closer to her than would be considered socially acceptable. Even that wasn’t too close for her personal comfort. The subject also underestimated by about half the distance that she thought would be uncomfortably close for others.
We can infer from this study that lack of an amygdala was involved in this woman’s lack of discomfort at being close to others, but there might have been other reasons as well. To test the amygdala hypothesis, Adolphs and his team studied the reactions, while under the fMRI brain scanner as the experimenters moved closer and closer to them. Sure enough, their amygdalas responded with spikes of activity to this perceived violation of their personal space.
Why would your amygdala care if someone gets too close to you? It’s well-known that the amygdala is triggered when we’re fearful or feel we’re being attacked. In most situations, we’re able to calm the amygdala down by engaging our frontal cortex, which inhibits this emotional activation. However, that activation can get out of control if either our cortex doesn’t do its job or the provocation becomes too severe and prolonged. Clearly, the cortex is enforcing the norms that we gain through exposure to our society’s beliefs about social closeness. When someone crosses that normative line, all bets are off and the amygdala tries to wrestle control.
We are able to judge not only the amount of personal space that’s right for us, but also the distance that seems appropriate for other people. University of Helsinki researchers headed by Miiamaaria Kujala asked participants to view images of people either facing toward or away from each other. The amygdala, along with other social regions of the brain was most highly activated when the people in the pictures faced each other.
Violating the norms of personal space can trigger the amygdalas of either the people you’re with or the people watching you. Knowing this can help to explain the aggravation you feel (or cause) when someone crosses inappropriately into your intimate or even personal zone. It might also help you proactively to make sure that you use your space, and those of the others you interact with, to the best advantage.
Using body language to help your social interactions means that you take advantage of these norms of personal space. Specifically, consider taking the following steps:
Great body language includes the use not only of your body but of the space around your body. These tips will help you keep your brain, and your body, well within its own comfort zone.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Kujala, M. V., Carlson, S., & Hari, R. (2012). Engagement of amygdala in third-person view of face-to-face interaction. Human Brain Mapping, 33(8), 1753-1762. doi:10.1002/hbm.21317