Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
RICE, B. K., DYSON,J.N. (2000). Personal Space Invaders. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 3. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 28, 2023 .

Personal Space Invaders
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (cronk@missouriwestern.edu)
This is a study of the reactions of violations to personal space in high and low-density conditions. The purpose of this study was to see if the reactions were more observable in low-density places than in high-density places. A total number of 72 participants were observed in this experiment in four locations. Two high-density and two low-density places were visited for this study. The low-density places were the library on campus of Missouri Western State College and the St. Joseph Movie Theater. The high-density places were the Kansas City Airport and the St. Joseph Wal-Mart on a weekend. The participants were approached based on where they were located in each of the four places. The experimenters either stood within six inches from the participants, or sat next to them when other places were available. Several reactions were observed and recorded when each occurred. The results were insignificant (chi-square (4)= 4.607, p=. 33). Therefore, the crowded conditions had no affect on the reactions of the participants. The reactions were basically the same in both of the density conditions. These findings are incongruent with past research on the effects of invading personal space. However, this was a small sample size. More participants were needed in each of the four locations. Also, observable behavior was all that was measured in this experiment. By surveying the participants, more information could have been used to measure the reactions.

The purpose of this study is to investigate the reactions to violations of personal space. The study of personal space, also called proxemics, can be defined in several ways. Proxemics was coined by Edward Hall to mean “ the study of how people respond to and use the distance between themselves and others” (Freedman, 1975). This is an important element in the environment because it effects behaviors and indicates how one feels about the others involved. This leads to a notion of territoriality that when people are too close, they have an instinct of aggression. Robert Sommer (Freedman, 1975) and his assistants found that people have rules on how far apart they stand. This distance varies according to several factors including the relationship of the people involved and personal characteristics of the people involved. If two people are friendly they will stand closer than if they are strangers. The distance between two people can reveal their feelings towards each other. Ethnic groups vary in regard to distance as well. Whites in the U.S., Canada, and England stand far apart. Europeans, on the other hand, stand closely. South Americans stand even closer. These differences can lead to misunderstandings among people from different cultures. When interpersonal distance is inappropriate, the person adjusts and interprets a special meaning. There is no indication that people respond to inappropriate distance with aggression. Again, an appropriate distance varies according to the situation, feelings, and relationship of those involved. Research on personal space is important for two reasons. First, it shows that people respond to changes in space and have rules of what is right and wrong. This makes it likely that density affects behavior. Second, there are no absolutes with space. In other words, there is no “right” distance (Freedman, 1975). According to Anne Katherine (1991), a boundary is a limit that defines “you” as being separate from others. This limit makes us unique. If this limit is invaded and seen as severe, a person becomes hostile. This boundary, otherwise known as a comfort zone, is an invisible circle surrounding us. We have emotional, spiritual, sexual, and relational boundaries. We each have our own limit of what we feel is “safe.” These boundaries form in infants, when a child develops self-concept and becomes unique from others. If these boundaries are violated, a person becomes either aggressive or vulnerable. The individual monitors these boundaries of personal space. The individual is in charge of making sure that people stay at a comfortable distance. If this distance becomes uncomfortable, the individual may back up or use something to separate them. Personal space is made up of four zones (Stewart, 1992). Intimate distance is the closest of these four zones. Close friends and families are in this range of actual touching up to 18 inches. When this distance is violated, it makes others anxious and angry. The personal distance zone is where touching is still involved, but can extend up to four feet. The social distance zone is usually where business is conducted or authority may be shown. This ranges anywhere from four to twelve feet. The final zone is public distance that extends beyond 12 feet. This is associated with public gatherings. Personal space as seen by Richard Stengel (1995) is intuitively understood by all human beings. Personal space is our “individual border beyond which no stranger can penetrate without making us uneasy.” In the end, personal space is psychological not physical. It depends more on our inner space than the space outside of us. Kaya and Erkip (1999) have found a number of studies on intrusions of personal space. These studies were conducted in libraries, airports, schools, offices, and restaurants. These experimenters have found that high-density condition and a decrease in available personal space leads to an individual feeling uncomfortable. When this density is undesirable, the outcome can be negative and aggressive. This lack of control over the environment can cause psychological distress. Individuals respond to violations of space by moving away, choosing less personal topics to talk about, and making remarks about leaving, turning away, avoiding eye contact, or increasing interpersonal distance. In conclusion, people manipulate their environment and prefer to use various distances from those around them. Personal space is an important aspect of physical space as part of the human-environment interaction. This space shows the need for individual privacy and the need for freedom from unwanted violations from others. People are uncomfortable when approached at a distance they feel is too close. Under high-density conditions people are more uncomfortable by the closeness of others than in low-density conditions. This is due to not having privacy and the decrease of interpersonal space. As a result of violating personal space, withdrawal behaviors have been observed. These behaviors are due to the proximity of the intruders as well as the density of the location. People perceive personal space as being narrower in high-density places due to the increase in the number of surrounding individuals. By reviewing the literature, there have been studies done on personal space and how people react when this space is violated. There are many definitions of personal space and how it can be violated. Each of us has our own invisible circle, which serves as our boundary of personal space. Each person will go to a different level to protect his or her own personal space. The purpose of this study is to see how personal space varies according to several locations.


This experiment consisted of between 15 and 20 subjects from each of the four locations. The library consisted of 16 participants, the movies had 18 participants, Wal-Mart also had 18 participants, and the airport consisted of 20 participants. All of these subjects were selected based on where they were located upon arrival of the experimenters. Ages and gender differ among each place since personal characteristics were not a concern for this experiment. Personal characteristics were not necessary for observations of reactions. Location varied since this was an important characteristic of this experiment. The participants in three of the four areas were located in St. Joseph, Missouri. The last location was the Kansas City airport, which contained participants from various regions.

This experiment consisted of the participants. There were no scientific devices used to measure the reactions from the invasions of personal space. Two experimenters were involved. Also one checklist was used for each of the four locations. The list contained five behaviors, which were expected to occur, and was checked off when any one of the behaviors was observed.

Four locations were used for this experiment. Two were high-density places and two were low-density places. The high-density places consisted of the Kansas City Airport and Wal-Mart in St. Joseph. The low-density places consisted of the library on the campus of Missouri Western State College on a Tuesday afternoon, and a movie theater in St. Joseph on a Sunday night. The experimenters went to each place and “invaded” participants’ personal space. The participants were chosen based on their location at each place. At the airport, being the last person in line at a terminal chose the participants. Standing alone at the baggage claim or sitting alone in the waiting areas also chose the participants. One experimenter either stood or sat extremely close to invade the personal space of the participant. This means that the experimenter was so close to the participant, they were touching. Either the experimenter would touch an arm accidentally, or sit close enough to have luggage overlap into the participants’ seats. The actions of that person were then observed. The other experimenter watched from a distance and checked the behavior on a checklist after it was observed. At Wal-Mart, participants were chosen in a similar manner. Participants were chosen based on their location in the checkout line or in an aisle. The same invasion of personal space occurred and was measured. The experimenters would choose a participant in a line and stand so close as to somehow bump or brush up against the person. Next, the experimenter would choose someone in a crowded aisle and be directly in the participant’s path, or somehow bump the person. The library at Missouri Western State College was visited for a low-density place. The experimenter found a participant sitting alone at a table or desk. The experimenter sat next to the participant even though other places were available or unoccupied. The reaction of the participant was observed and recorded. The experimenter also chose someone in an aisle or sitting alone, and accidentally touched the person. Also, participants sitting alone at computers were observed. The experimenter sat next to them and would touch them accidentally with an arm or with a backpack. Finally, a movie theater was visited on a Sunday night. The experimenter sat next to a subject waiting to see a movie. Before a movie began, the experimenter found subjects to sit next to, even though other seats were available. The other experimenter recorded the actions. The subjects would be sitting alone. Another approach used was to sit directly in front of a participant to observe the reaction. The experimenters sat next to participants before a movie started and also after a movie had started. Participants were also chosen standing in line at the concession stand. The experimenter would stand less than six inches directly behind the participant. The behaviors being measured were: doing nothing, moving away (completely leaving the area), avoiding eye contact, verbal interaction, and increasing interpersonal distance. The person became a participant as soon as the experimenter approached that person. In each of the locations, all of these behaviors were looked for. When one occurred, the other experimenter recorded it. Another participant was then chosen.

A chi-square test of independence was calculated comparing the reactions of the participants to the high and low-density conditions. No significant relationship was found (chi-square (4)= 4.607, p=. 33). The reactions of the participants were no more likely to occur in low-density than high-density locations.

The purpose of this experiment was to see how personal space varied according to several locations. The hypothesis was that in low-density places, reactions to invasions of personal space would be more observable than those in high-density places. This experiment did not support the hypothesis, but it provided valuable data. There were some limitations involved with this study. The number of participants were too few. Having more participants may have allowed for a greater variability amongst each of the locations. Another limitation regarded the density of the airport. The airport was visited on a Saturday afternoon and was not as crowded as expected. The library was sparsely populated which made it difficult to obtain 15 participants. It was expected to be a low-density place, but was even more unpopulated than what was envisioned. Due to the two-level, low population in the library, the two experimenters became suspect. In choosing a low-density place, the movie theatre was probably not an ideal choice. In a movie theatre, the norm is a quiet atmosphere, which may have inhibited the expression of a reaction from the participants. In general, different things could be changed in doing this experiment again. Different locations could be used, more subjects chosen, more operationally defined reactions, and the confounding variables accounted for. If this experiment were to be repeated, there are a few things that should be changed. For instance, in choosing the locations, this could have been approached by a more scientific manner. Prior research should have been done to obtain knowledge of when the places were the most and least populated. By doing this research more subjects would have been available. The reactions that were chosen to be observed could have been defined in a more specific manner. The experimenters focused only on observable behavior. Nothing was taken into account about the thoughts, and emotions that each participant may have been experiencing. Had the experimenters surveyed the participants after the invasion was done, the reactions may have been more of what was expected, and been consistent with the literature. The conclusion of this experiment was not consistent with past research. According to Freedman (1975), research on personal space shows that people respond to changes in personal space, and have rules of what is right and wrong. This belief says that it is likely that density affects behavior. Also, if the boundaries of personal space are violated, the person becomes vulnerable (Katherine, 1991). The past research has shown that high-density conditions and decreases in personal space lead to an individual feeling uncomfortable. As a result of violating personal space, withdrawal behaviors have been observed. The behaviors are due to the density of these locations. In this experiment, the crowded conditions had no affect on the reactions of the participants. Even in low-density places, the reactions were mild. This experiment did show a difference of reactions according to the density, however, it was not significant. In other words, reactions did not depend on the condition being crowded or not. The hypothesis of this experiment was not supported, but many influences involved could have made a difference. Although this experiment ended with non-significant results, this information provided can help with future research in this area.

Freedman, J. (1975). Crowding and behavior. New York: The Viking Press, Inc. Katherine, A. (1991). Boundaries: Where you end and I begin. Illinois: Parkside Publishing Corp. Kaya, N., & Erkip, F. (1999) Invasion of personal space under the condition of short-term crowding: A case study on an automatic teller machine. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 19,183-189. Stengel, R. (1995). Space invaders. The New Yorker, 71, 2-3. Stewart, S. (1992). Too close for comfort? Current Health 2, 19, 4-5.

Submitted 11/28/00 1:17:07 PM
Last Edited 11/28/00 1:40:56 PM
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