How close could a stranger come to you before you start feeling uncomfortable? Usually, people start feeling uneasy when unfamiliar people come within an arm’s reach. But take a tube journey during rush hour and you have no choice but to get up close and personal with complete strangers.
Researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London wanted to find out whether there is a way to make this intrusion more tolerable. Their results, published in the journal PLoS One, reveal that listening to music through headphones can change people’s margins of personal space.
Dr Manos Tsakiris, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, said: “This distance we try to maintain between ourselves and others is a comfort zone surrounding our bodies. Everyone knows where the boundaries of their personal space are even though they may not consciously dictate them. Of course personal space can be modified for example in a number of relationships including family members and romantic partners, but on a busy tube or bus you can find complete strangers encroaching in this space.”
The study, led by Dr Tsakiris and Dr Ana Tajadura-Jiménez from Royal Holloway, involved asking volunteers to listen to positive or negative emotion-inducing music through headphones or through speakers. At the same time, a stranger started walking towards them and the participants were asked to say “stop” when they started feeling uncomfortable.
The results showed that when participants were listening to music that evoked positive emotions through headphones, they let the stranger come closer to them, indicating a change in their own personal space. Dr Tajadura-Jiménez explains: “Listening to music that induces positive emotions delivered through headphones shifts the margins of personal space. Our personal space “shrinks”, allowing others to get closer to us.”
Dr Tsakiris added: “So next time you are ready to board a packed train, turn on your mp3 player and let others come close to you without fear of feeling invaded.”