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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
KLINGE, J.W. (1999). How Different Areas of Personal Space Are Protected: a Look at Gender Differences. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 2. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved December 9, 2023 .

How Different Areas of Personal Space Are Protected: a Look at Gender Differences

Sponsored by: DARLENE HOWARD (howardd@georgetown.edu)
While sitting alone in a library, college students place their book bags, jackets and other personal belongings in various positions on the table which prevent strangers from violating their personal space. Based on a previous study, it was hypothesized that females would put their belongings in positions to protect the space next to them whereas males would want to protect the space across from them, based upon which space is valued more. The data collected from a university library supports this hypothesis, showing that a large percentage of females placed their things next to them, as opposed to the males who tended to place their things in front of them.

Personal Space can be defined as a movable, invisible barrier surrounding each individual (Aiello, 1987). Moving into someone`s personal space can be viewed as a violation. This space varies across individuals according to factors such as culture, age, and gender. This study examines how an individual`s gender is related to how that person values different areas of their personal space and how that person protects his or her most valued personal space. The evidence gathered in this investigation shows a significant distinction between males and females. While sitting alone at a table, males were more inclined to value and protect the space directly in front of them whereas females were more inclined to protect the space next to them. This study is a slight modification of work done previously by Donn Byrne and Jeffrey Fisher (1975). Byrne has found that males generally choose to sit across from those they consider friends, and females tend to sit next to their friends. He goes on to argue that this place of preference for a friend, either across or next to, respectively, is the place where the person does not want a stranger to sit (Byrne, Baskett, & Hodges, 1971). In order to test this hypothesis, Byrne and Fisher (1975) did one study in which the experimenter would enter an individual`s personal space while he or she was sitting alone at a table studying. Each of the subjects` personal space was moved in upon from the side and the front. The results showed that females felt more negatively about the experimenter sitting adjacent to them and the males felt more negatively about the experimenter sitting across from them. In a related study, these researchers were interested in how individuals might preemptively attempt to protect the personal space that they value the most. It was not relevant whether or not this was a conscious act. So they did a second study in which they observed where individuals would place their belongings on the table as they were studying, as possible barriers to prevent others from occupying a certain seat or seats at their table. In this research, I have attempted to replicate this second study as closely as possible. However, I have modified the study to some degree. In the original study, Byrne and Fisher (1975) marked the subjects in one of three categories. Subjects who created a barrier across from them were placed in one category, subjects who created a barrier next to them were placed in a second category, and subjects who erected barriers both across from and next to them were placed in a third category. In addition to these three categories, two other categories have been added in this study. The first of these is a category for subjects who erect barriers against all the seats at the table. The second additional category is for those subjects who erect no barriers. The purpose of adding these categories was to determine whether there is a gender difference in relation to those individuals who use their belongings to block all the seats around them and those who do not erect any barriers at all.


The subjects in this study were 75 males and 75 females sitting in Georgetown University`s Lauinger library. Each of these subjects had to be sitting at a table by themselves. No other criteria for choosing the subjects such as race or age was used. Due to the demographics of Georgetown University, the majority of the subjects were white, college age students. In Byrne and Fisher`s (1975) study, it was observed that less than 5% of the tables were occupied by more than one person while the observations took place. This criterion was followed as well in this study. This seems to be a regulation of crowdedness. If the library were more crowded than this, then people`s placement of their things could vary due to the possible feeling of guilt that they are taking more seats than they should, considering a scarcity of seats.

The placement of books, jackets and other personal belongings by males and females was observed by an experimenter and marked in one of five categories. A single experimenter other than the author was used to collect all the data. In an attempt to minimize bias in the collection of this data, this experimenter was not familiar with the expectations of the outcome of the study but was familiarized with the process of data collection. The first three categories of placement are as described by Byrne and Fisher (1975), the other two are my additions. 1) Between the subject and either or both adjacent seats. 2) Between the subject and the seat across the table.3) Both in front and on only one side. 4) Both sides and in front. 5) No placement. I added these last two categories for the following reasons. For those who placed their belongings on all sides of them, it is possible that a stranger sitting anywhere at their table could be perceived as an invasion of personal space. The genders of these subjects were also noted in order to reveal any gender differences here. Also, those who did not place their belongings on the table at all have been included in the study. It is possible that these people may be leaving the table open for anyone to sit down, although I will not necessarily come to this conclusion. Again, gender was noted for this category as well. The shape of the table was not taken into account, being either round or rectangular. It is possible for the subject to feel that someone might sit down, whether across or beside, regardless of the shape of the table. Furthermore, whether or not there are chairs missing from the table was not taken into account. I do not believe this to be a large limit because in the subject`s mind it is always possible for someone to move a chair to that table at any time. This study is looking at the guarding of the space, rather than specifically the chair that may be in that space. If the subject was actively using more than one piece of material in their studying, then that particular object was not counted as a barrier in the study. In an attempt to try to eliminate subjectivity in deciding what was `actively being used,` books that were open and within comfortable reading distance were seen as actively being used. Counting these materials might possibly be confounding the data. A person`s preference, for example, for whether they place a book they are taking notes from in front of them or on the side does not necessarily imply that they are guarding that space. So items that were not actively being used were counted, such as bags, jackets, and closed books.

In the collection of the data, the subject`s gender was noted and then each subject was placed into one of the five categories. Table 1 shows how frequently males and females placed their belongings in each of the five categories. This table also shows the percentages of each category for both males and females. A 5x2 chi-square analysis shows significant differences in gender regarding where belongings were placed on the table, c2(4) = 13.97, p < .01. A 2x2 chi-squared analysis of the first two categories, looking only at those who erected barriers across or adjacent, also shows significant difference in gender, c2(1) = 6.48, p < .02. The females tended to place their belongings in adjacent positions whereas the males tended to place them in across positions, as was predicted. These findings were for the most part consistent with Byrne and Fisher`s study (1975). However, in the third category, which is placement in front and on one side, there were 17 males and 9 females. These data are relatively inconsistent with the findings of Byrne and Fisher (1975). They found that approximately the same number of males and females fell into this category.

Table 1

figure 1

Significantly more females than males erected barriers to protect the space next to them whereas significantly more males than females erect barriers to protect the space across from them. Therefore it seems as though females find it more offensive for a stranger to come up to their table and sit next to them and males find it worse for a stranger to come and sit across from them. Byrne and Fisher (1975) cite evidence from past studies supporting the idea that this type of behavior is not specific to the conditions in this study. In approaching a stranger, females will approach in closer proximity from the front and males will approach strangers in closer proximity from the side. They also provide a possible explanation for why this type of behavior may exist. Typically there is face-to-face contact in competitive situations (Byrne & Fisher 1975). For example, people tend to "face-off" in sporting events and situations such as a military battle. So why is it that the males are more offended than females by this "competitor" who may sit across from them? In general, it seems as though males tend to have a more competitive nature than do females. According to Eleanor Maccoby, it is clear that "the human male is more interested in competitive sports than the human female" (Maccoby, 1974). This is one possibility of why males would erect barriers in front of them. As for females, there is evidence to support the possibility that females in the past have been socialized to be more dependent (Maccoby, 1966). Even though this may not be the case presently, it could have had an effect on spatial positioning in the socialization process that could have been passed on from previous generations. In addition, females tend to interact with others in closer proximity than do males (Barnard & Bell, 1982). It seems logical that if a person wants to be closer to someone else, then they would sit next to him or her as opposed to across the table. As it was stated earlier, this space in which they would want to interact with people is probably also the space that they would not want intruded upon by a stranger. This could be why the barriers are erected.The final three categories of data may be related to a slightly different aspect of how individuals view and react to the concept of personal space. Let us assume the typical table in this study has four places to sit, and the subject is occupying one of these seats. An individual who has been classified as falling into the third category would have put up barriers to essentially try to prevent two of the remaining three spaces at the table from being occupied. Someone who has been classified in the fourth category would have put up barriers to try to prevent anyone else from sitting at that table at all. And finally, those falling into the fifth category could be viewed as not attempting to prevent anyone from sitting at their table with them. The third and fourth categories are quite similar. In both cases the majority of the seats at the table are unavailable. In each of these cases it seems likely that another individual would be reluctant to sit down at either of these types of tables. On the other hand, it seems likely that another individual would join a person at a table where three of the four seats are available, as is the case in category five. With these assumptions in mind, the data could be interpreted to reveal a gender difference in the willingness of individuals to share the table that they are studying at. There are a greater number of males in categories three and four in which the subject has essentially prevented anyone else from sitting at the table. In addition, there are more females than males in category five who have left the table open for others to sit down. If we are to assume that females do tend to interact in closer proximity as is stated above, then it may be possible to extend this notion to females being more willing to share their personal space while sitting at a table. Because females typically interact in closer proximity, they may be more accustomed to closer contact and are generally more comfortable with the idea of sharing their personal space than males. Clearly the evidence collected in this study cannot be considered conclusive evidence to support that females are more willing to share a table than males. However, the data do seem to point to that possibility. More extensive research would need to be conducted on this topic. A study could be set up in which the experimenter would approach subjects and ask them if the barriers erected were put up consciously. If it was a conscious act, the experimenter could question them as to why they put up the barriers. This might lend some insight into the motivation of erecting barriers. Even in this situation, though, it must be kept in mind that the real reasons the barriers were erected might not be revealed. For instance, people might feel slightly embarrassed that they were taking up more seats than they should have, and therefore might make up an answer that makes them appear more justified in their actions. This study does have certain limitations. For one, only one type of situation was observed. That is, only a library situation was observed. It might be beneficial to this study of personal space to look at how people view and possibly try to protect personal space in other situations, such as while eating alone in a cafeteria. In taking into consideration other situations, it might also be possible to look at different age groups, considering this study mostly involved college-aged students. Another limit, which was mentioned above, is that this study does not reveal whether subjects were erecting barriers consciously. Further research could shed light on this issue and might be useful in understanding how people think about their personal space. One other limit in this study involves the placement of subjects into the categories. Even though an experimenter was used who was not familiar with the prediction of where males and females would place things, there is still some level of subjectivity in the categorization. For instance, there are likely to be occasions where the subject has erected a barrier near the borderline between being across and being adjacent to the individual. The experimenter must make a judgment. It might improve the reliability of this study to have more than one experimenter and then check the reliability between the experimenters. In everyday life, it is important to keep in mind the results of this study when choosing where to sit. It may save some unnecessary discomfort and negative feelings if a person takes into account the gender of the person they are sitting with. There are gender differences and we should be aware of them.

Aiello, J. R. (1987). Human Spatial Behavior. In Stokols and Altman, (Eds.), Handbook of Environmental Psychology. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

Barnard, William A, & Bell, Paul A. (1982). An Unobtrusive Apparatus for Measuring Interpersonal Distances. Journal of General Psychology, 107, 85-90.

Byrne, D., Baskett, G., & Hodges, L. (1971). Behavioral Indicators of Interpersonal Attraction. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1, 137-149.

Byrne, D. & Fisher, J.D. (1975). Too Close for Comfort: Sex Differences in Response to Invasions of Personal Space. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 15-20.

Maccoby, Eleanor & Jacklin, Carol Nagy (1974). The Psychology of Sex Differences. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Maccoby, Eleanor E., (Ed), (1974). The Development of Sex Differences. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Submitted 6/2/99 9:35:59 PM
Last Edited 6/28/99 3:16:29 AM
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