Although many studies have been conducted on interpersonal distance throughout history, it remains uncertain how it should be defined. The Dictionary of Psychology defines interpersonal distance as the
distance that people select to separate their ‘bubble’ of personal space from one or more other individuals (Corsini, 1999). This definition appears vague and does not address what usually happens through the invasion of one’s personal space.
According to Hayduk (1978), personal space would be “the area individual humans actively maintain around themselves into which others cannot intrude without arousing discomfort” (p. 118). Altman (1975) has noticed that each definition has four properties. First, it has an invisible boundary separating ourselves from others. Second, it would be literally connected to the self. Third, the invisible boundary adjusts to different situations. Fourth, if someone infringes upon our personal space, it could result in anxiety or stress (Altman, 1975). As Corsini (1999) mentioned, it has often been described as an invisible ‘bubble’ encircling a person (Hayduk, 1983).
Despite this common description, Hayduk (1983) believed the bubble analogy was insufficient and misleading. He explained that the bubble analogy does not portray the degree of resistance accompanying intrusion effectively. The misleading aspect was derived from the fact that two bubbles repel one another when pushed together, but when two people got close to each other, their bodies would move, not their personal spaces. Furthermore, bubbles consist of a circular shape and remain the same size until they are ruptured. Personal space remains flexible and it can change depending on the surroundings and specific situations. That being said, the research on personal space has been vast (Hayduk, 1983).
Personal space has been studied in conjunction with a multitude of variables such as age (Yagoda, 1982; Remland, 1995), race (Brown, 1981; Carifio, 1987), cultural differences (Aono, 1980; Beaulieu, 2004; Six, 1983), mental disorders (Nechamkin, 2003; Beekman, 1986), the menstrual cycle (O’Neal, Schultz, & Christenson, 1987) and sex (Buchanan, Goldman, & Juhnke, 1977; Schwarzwald, Kavish, Shoham, & Waysman, 1977). Most of the research has been limited in analyzing merely sex and interpersonal distance. Sex differences have often been considered secondary since researchers tend to include other variables that make it difficult to determine cause and effect. This has been due to the fact that most researchers have not been specifically interested in sex differences, but included them in their research anyway (Altman, 1975).
Although sex has been oversimplified and misinterpreted as unimportant when studying interpersonal distance, it continues to be a relevant factor. Hayduk (1983) explains that part of the problem has been that we expect sex to have simple effects because there would only be two values to interpret. This has been a misconception because sex should not be seen as a simple dichotomy (Hayduk, 1983). Altman (1975) and Hayduk (1983) both agreed that sex differences need to be understood by observing whether a male or female was approaching a male or female. As a result, there should be four possible values instead of two values. Another important factor would be to determine the relative positions of each individual (Fisher & Byrne, 1975; Hayduk, 1983). Males appear to be more comfortable with adjacent spatial positions and females appear to be more comfortable with frontal spatial positions (Fisher & Byrne, 1975). This difference may account for more or less personal space between males and females.
Numerous studies concluded that females have smaller zones of personal space compared to males (Altman, 1975; Edney, Walker, & Jordan, 1976; Fisher, 1975). On the other hand, several studies have also found no significant results at all (Greenberg, Aronow, & Rauchway, 1977; Heckel & Hiers, 1977; Schneider & Hansvick, 1977; Rustemli, 1988). The two conclusions contradict one another. The question remains as to whether significant results concerning sex differences and personal space actually exist.
Lerner, Venning, and Knapp (1975) conducted a study on the age and sex effects on personal space. In a sample of children, between kindergarten and sixth grade, it was found that significant sex effects were apparent. The sex effects that were found included the need for females to require more space from males and less space from females. Additionally, it was found that males require more space from females and less from males (Lerner, Venning, & Knapp, 1975). One reason for this effect might be the age of the participants. Nevertheless, it suggests that each sex has personal space requirements.
The boundary of personal space expands and contracts in diverse situations. In a study conducted by Schwarzwald, Kavish, Shoham, and Waysman (1977), it was found that under fear arousal conditions, personal space contracts. This finding coincides with Altman’s (1975) third property of personal space, which states that the invisible boundary adjusts to different situations. The experiment was performed in a laboratory setting. Participants were told that a galvanic skin response apparatus was going to check for changes. In the fear arousal condition, participants were told that the changes would be measured via electric shocks which may cause some pain or discomfort. Participants in the condition without fear arousal were also told that the changes would be measured via shocks, but were not told they would cause pain or discomfort. The participants in both conditions were told there were two stages in the process, and that they could wait in a waiting room for the next stage. Upon entering the waiting room, a confederate would appear to be waiting for their second stage in the experiment. The participant would have to pick up an overturned chair and place it anywhere to sit down. The distance recorded was between the confederate and the participant. The results showed that the influence of fear arousal on either sex influenced them to move toward someone of the same sex. Also, in a non fear induced condition, males had a tendency to be closer to a female (Schwarzwald, et al., 1977).
Rustemli (1988) conducted an experiment on the effects of personal space invasion on impressions, decisions, and comfort. It should also be noted that the technique used in this study was unusual. The participants were told that the purpose of the investigation was to study the interview technique as a selection procedure. In the non-invasion condition, the interviewee (confederate) placed their chair between 100 cm and 120 cm from the interviewer (participant). Conversely, in the invasion condition, the interviewee placed their chair at approximately 10 cm between their feet and the interviewer’s feet. During the interview, a set of 12 questions would be asked by the interviewer and the interviewee would respond with rehearsed answers.
After the interview was over, the participant (interviewer) would fill out an evaluation sheet. The sheet measured impressions with 20 bipolar adjectives, then it measured decisions through a 7 point scale where 1 is yes I would hire them and 7 is no I would not hire them. The sheet also measured feelings about the interview situation as a whole by asking how comfortable they were and to what degree were they comfortable. There was no variation to be found on distance manipulation upon impressions and decisions. Both male and female subjects had equally positive reactions. Conversely, male invaders produced more discomfort than female invaders. The study was conducted in Turkey, so one reason for this result may be cultural. Men may seem more threatening because they have more power and higher status (Rustemli, 1988).
Buchanan and colleagues (1977) conducted a study on the violation of personal space and whether eye contact or sex had an effect upon it. Three different experiments were conducted. In the first experiment, either 2 male or 2 female confederates occupied an elevator. As a participant would step onto the elevator, one confederate would gaze at them while the other stared at the control panel. Since it was possible for the non-gazing confederate to make eye contact peripherally, experiment two was performed. This experiment was the same as the first with the exception that one confederate had there back to the control panel while reading a newspaper. In experiment 3, there was one male and one female occupying the elevator, and both were making eye contact with whoever got on it. Males were found to have no preference towards either sex regardless of any eye contact. On the other hand, females chose to invade the space of another female who was making eye contact whether the other person was a female or a male. One explanation for this may be that females tend to engage in more mutual glances than men (Buchanan, Goldman, & Juhnke, 1977).
In a study conducted by Uzzell and Horne (2006), it was found that there were some sex differences in interpersonal distance. However, the most significant differences were found in gender roles. They proposed that sex does not have a distinctive role to play in explaining interpersonal distance. Nevertheless, they recognized that gender roles have been highly correlated with sex; therefore, sex can not be ruled out completely (Uzzell & Horne, 2006).
Sex refers to the biological parts of a person, while gender refers to a social and cultural construction specifying how men and women should behave. There has been an escalating dissociation between sex and gender among society in recent years. As a result, it has made it more acceptable for women to assert at least some masculine traits and characteristics and for men to assert at least some feminine traits and characteristics. Whereas sex has become more polarized, gender exists along a continuum. Hence, it would be inappropriate to assume sex and gender to be the same (Uzzell & Horne, 2006).
These findings may have some inevitable methodological limitations in the study of interpersonal distance. The three different methodologies that have been used to examine discrepancies in personal distances include projective, laboratory, and observation. Projective procedures entail asking participants to hypothetically imagine a circumstance, and then indicate how they think they or another person would react spatially in that situation (Uzzell & Horne, 2006). After reviewing the studies using this technique, Hayduk (1983) concluded that it had no credibility. It has a number of obvious flaws such as needing complex cognitive skills like reconstruction, imagination, empathy, and memory demands.
Laboratory measures have also been utilized frequently. The ‘stopdistance’ method has been the most common laboratory method. The experimenter would ask one participant to enter a room and approach another participant until the point when they start feeling uncomfortable with the other person’s proximity. On the other hand, the ‘approach distance’ method would be used in a similar way. The participants would be asked to move towards another person and specify when they stop feeling comfortable. Two of the advantages to laboratory studies would be that they could be easily administered, and by arranging the setting to look like, for example, an office, the experiment could have some degree of ecological validity.
The third methodology, observation, has the most ecological validity since it involves directly observing people interacting with each other in real situations and, if possible, by unobtrusive means. The observation method also conveys awareness to the most practical obscurity in the accurate measurement of interpersonal distances. The observation method includes two subtypes which attempt to be inconspicuous and field-based.
The first subtype would be mostly a naturalistic, unobtrusive, and uncontrolled observation which would reflect people interacting in a real-world setting. The second subtype would be staged invasions or blocked access in natural settings. In both subtypes, either unsuspecting participants would be approached by a confederate or the paths of people would be blocked by confederates and the reactions examined. Two of the problems with each of these techniques have been ecological validity and the accuracy of measurement. Observation studies as well as laboratory studies have not been able to agree on accurate measurements of interpersonal distance. Since variations in interpersonal distances have been minimal, it would be important to be accurate.
The purpose of the current study will be to look at observational research of interpersonal distance between males and females. Nearly all studies on interpersonal distance look more at social interaction than at the actual physical distance which makes this study somewhat novel. Nevertheless, we predict that the furthest distance will be between two males, next between a female approaching a male, then between a male approaching a female, and the closest distance will be between two females.
A 4 X 4 between subjects research design would be used in this study. The two independent variables observed will be sex and accessories. Sex would have four levels recorded as female to male, male to female, male to male, or female to female. There would be four levels for accessories recorded as presence of a backpack, presence of a lunch tray, presence of both a lunch tray and a backpack, and the absence of a lunch tray and a backpack. The dependent variable would be the distance between the participant and the confederate.
One hundred undergraduate students at the University of Alabama will be observed in food lines at the Ferguson Center Food Court. Participants should vary with respect to sex and race. The sex of the students in this study should consist of roughly half males and half females. Since the study will be conducted at a University, most of the participants would probably be around the same age. Professors, staff, and non-University of Alabama undergraduates should not be included.
All data would be collected with pen and paper. A data sheet would be constructed with various categories to ease the collection process and allow more focus on the college students. The data sheet would consist of five categories listed in columns. The first category would be labeled ‘sex of participant’ which has two options: male or female. The second column would be labeled ‘sex of confederate’ which also has two options: male or female. The next column would be labeled ‘accessory’ which has four options: presence of a backpack, presence of a lunch tray, presence of both a lunch tray and a backpack, and the absence of a lunch tray and a backpack. The fourth column would be labeled ‘other’ and could be used to record either the race of each participant or other potential variables. The last column would be labeled ‘distance’ and would be used to record how far the participant moved when his or her personal space was invaded upon in line by the confederate.
First of all, in order to help prevent observer bias, the observers would have no knowledge of the research hypotheses. They would also be trained on the method of measuring to aid the interobserver reliability. The observers and confederates would arrive at the Ferguson Center Food Court around noon since that would be the busiest time of day and as a result would lower reactivity. One individual will act as the observer and the other will act as the confederate. In order to promote fairness and to help provide a representative sample, one researcher should be female and the other male. The observer should stay within ten feet of the confederate and the presumed participant. This ought to be a safe distance and help the observer blend in with the crowd.
Before the confederate invades the participant’s personal space, the observer should note the sex, race, and accessories of the participant. Then, with a head nod, the confederate could begin to invade the personal space of the person in line. The participant in line may move forward, away from the confederate, or remain in the same position to keep from interfering with someone else’s personal space. The observer would estimate the distance in feet and record it on the data sheet. After 50 participants had been entered on the data sheet, the researchers should switch places.
The prediction for the present study was that the furthest distance will be between two males, next between a female approaching a male, then between a male approaching a female, and the closest distance would be between two females. These results were based upon previous research which supported the hypothesis that females have the shortest distance of personal space with another female (Buchanan, Goldman, & Juhnke, 1977; Schwarzwald, et al., 1977; Lerner, Venning, & Knapp, 1975).
The prediction that two males would be the farthest apart was derived from societal expectations and homophobic tendencies. Society expects males to lack emotion and be strong. Conversely, society expects females to be emotional and passive. Males tend to perceive the closeness of another male as threatening to their manhood. Therefore, the furthest amount of interpersonal distance should be found between two males.
A female approaching a male was predicted to have more distance than a male approaching a female due to societal expectations as well. A male has been perceived as more dominant, and would be expected to approach a female. On the other hand, a female who approaches a male may be seen as promiscuous. Thus, it seemed appropriate that a female approaching a male would contain more distance than a male approaching a female.
One of the limitations of this study would be that it was performed in an uncontrolled setting. However, this could also be viewed as an advantage because it would be in a somewhat natural environment. Another limitation might be in the perception of the actual distance that the participant moved. In a naturalistic setting, it would be difficult to measure precisely how far a person moved without the result of reactivity. Although college students have been frequently used in experiments, it has been questioned whether they can represent the general population.
Future research should continue to perfect a way of measuring interpersonal distance. A more reliable method would provide higher validity and reliability. Additionally, more research should be done to focus on the effects of sex on interpersonal distance.
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