You know that uncomfortable feeling you get when someone gets too close to you? Perhaps you’re sitting in a crowded stadium, theater, or subway car when the person next to you seems unaware of the fact that the only way you can avoid physical contact is to squeeze as much as possible into your own seat. You’ve undoubtedly had the experience of standing in a nearly empty room talking to someone who comes within inches of your face.
Cultures differ in what they consider appropriate interpersonal boundaries, but even within the same national or religious grouping, there are people who violate expectations of the right distance to maintain in ordinary social interactions.
There are, as research shows, people known as “space invaders” whose lack of respect for personal boundaries reflect such factors as personality, environment, context, culture, gender role, age, and social status. However, another obvious but relatively unexplored influence on personal space use is an individual’s physical stature. Tall people have longer limbs that can get in the way of maintaining socially acceptable distances from others.
Consider a taller-than-average individual who needs to squeeze into one of those infamously small and narrow seats that you encounter in a public space such as a sports arena. If you’re one of these people, you know it’s obviously impossible to shrink yourself in an Alice-in-Wonderland-type of manner. However, new research suggests that being tall may also contribute in other ways to failure to maintain adequate interpersonal boundaries.
A new study by University of Bologna psychologist Mariano D’Angelo and colleagues (2019) suggests that your actual height can influence how you perceive and regulate the distance you place between yourself and others, or what they refer to as the “peripersonal space (PPS).” Neurons in the parts of the brain involved in motor movements and physical sensations are constantly calculating your PPS. The process reflects what the Italian authors refer to as “a multisensory interface, which serves to detect, and possibly predict, potential interactions between the body and the environment in order to generate suitable motor acts” (p. 1).
Interpersonal space (IPS), by contrast, “refers to the protective, safety zone that people maintain around their own body during a social interaction, into which another’s intrusion may cause discomfort” (p. 1). IPS is constantly being negotiated around some of those cultural and personality factors as well as the context of an interaction. Whether a person seems near or far based on PPS depends on the “morphological and sensorimotor body representation, the so-called body schema” (p. 2).
In other words, PPS reflects your actual bodily perception and IPS the socially-determined rules that govern how close your body gets to other people. It may seem impossible to perform that Alice in Wonderland trick to change your bodily size at will, but the researchers were able to do the next best thing by experimentally manipulating people’s PPS using virtual reality cameras. The procedure, developed by previous researchers, involves creating bodily illusions through a head mounted display containing a camera. People wear this display which gives them a first-person perspective of a person who is very tall or very short. Indeed, in the previous studies, researchers created a full-body illusion to participants wearing the head mounted viewer of being either a doll or a giant.
D’Angelo and his colleagues propose that height contributes importantly to use of personal space. Short people, other researchers have found, make room for taller people when they are walking on a narrow sidewalk (try this experiment yourself!). Taller people feel more socially dominant, and so expect others to accommodate to them rather than vice versa. If you “see” yourself as taller in that experimental manipulation of body size, then you should be more likely to invade the personal space of others. The Italian team measured IPS by asking their participants to stop an individual approaching them (the "confederate") at a position where they felt most comfortable. The research team measured PPS by asking their participants to stop the confederate at the point where they felt they could physically reach that person.
The experimental manipulation involved having participants perceive themselves as tall or short using that virtual reality device. Wearing this device, they saw themselves (from a first-person perspective) through a “body swap” with either a 6’6” or 3’6” size mannequin. The illusion seemed to work, because when the researchers asked participants to estimate their own body height (as the distance between two vertical lines projected on a wall), those in the tall condition were more likely to perceive themselves as tall and in the short condition, they estimated their own body height as shorter.
Regarding the two key variables of IPS and PPS, manipulated height did seem to make a difference. In the body-swap with the tall mannequin, participants reduced their IPS (sense of comfort in getting close to others) but enlarged their PPS (believed themselves to occupy more physical space). The counterpart in the short condition did not hold true, as there was no effect on PPS shown by participants in the short body-swap condition. The authors reasoned that people are more likely to see themselves as extending into space when they use tools or ladders (giving them an effectively longer reach or taller height) but don’t have a similar experience of feeling that their bodily reach contracts because those situations don't exist in everyday life.
The greater comfort in dominating a space by tall people, is more than just a matter of physical size, however. Tall people use the perception of their larger size to feel that they dominate over people who are smaller and shorter than they are. They'll invade your space, this finding suggests, because they feel they deserve to take up more room than you do. The remarkable findings from the D'Angelo et al. study show that even being deceived into thinking you're taller than you are can produce an instantaneous effect in the way you dominate physical distances between yourself and others.
To sum up, the findings suggest that people who use up too much personal space will be the ones who perceive their bodies as bigger, and this is what makes them more confident about their ability to take space away from those around them. If you’re a tall person, you can take these results as fair warning the next time you encroach on the boundaries of the smaller people in your vicinity. If it’s other people who encroach on your space, consider that in some ways they may not be able to “help” themselves. Some understanding on your part, in either case, can help smooth the way toward more pleasant social interactions and fulfilling relationships.
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D’Angelo, M., di Pellegrino, G., & Frassinetti, F. (2019). The illusion of having a tall or short body differently modulates interpersonal and peripersonal space. Behavioural Brain Research, 375. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2019.112146.