It’s a hot summer day and you are crammed onto a commuter train. So you may take measures to cope with the uncomfortable closeness of strangers: Perhaps you put in earbuds or read a book, or perhaps you just avoid eye contact and turn away.
All of these actions change how we focus our attention and perceive our surroundings. A new study, seeking to simulate such scenarios, found that shifting attention away from someone in close proximity increased the perceived distance between two people and reduced feelings of discomfort.
“When we move around and interact with the world, we are constantly connecting and coordinating with other people,” says Ancret Szpak of Flinders University in Australia. “Others can influence our behaviors, physiology, and perceptions within the world.” So to Szpak and colleagues, who study the effects of distractions on attention, the next logical step was studying how proximity to another person can influence attention.
The research team set out to investigate this topic by seeing how attention changes if someone is completing a task that is similar to or different from another person. They used a well-known and reliable spatial task, previously used only for single participant designs, that requires people to make judgments about line lengths. The researchers then took this information to determine how a person’s attention physically moves. They asked participants to complete a line task either alone, together with a partner in close proximity, or separately with the partner still in close proximity.
As published online last month the the journal Cognitive Neuroscience, the researchers found that people moved their attention away from their partners while they were engaging in the same task together. “Our findings are consistent with the idea that sitting in close proximity to a stranger can cause feelings of discomfort,” Szpak says. “Commuters on public transport try to distance themselves from personal-space invaders either by moving away or by engaging in a solo activity such as playing with smartphones.”
In their experiment, because the pairs were engaged in a task together, they could not move away or listen to music. “Rather, they compensated by shifting their attention away from the other person,” she says. “In turn, this shift of attention would increase the perceived distance between themselves and the other person and thereby reduce feelings of discomfort.”
Interestingly, the team found that participants shifted their attention away from their partners less when pairs engaged in separate tasks. “By performing separate tasks, we may have given people a ‘way out’ where they could conceptually distance themselves from the other person, therefore allowing them to retreat into their own personal bubble,” Szpak says. “This finding is particularly interesting as this gives us insight into what people are doing when they listening to music on a crowded bus, for example.”
The research has applications in many different scenarios involving shared spaces, such as driving with passengers, living in crowded environments, or working in an office or classroom setting. Current theories of spatial attention do not take into account the social element outside of the laboratory. Szpak says that the research is of increasing importance in aiding the development of treatments for clinical social anxiety, the third largest mental health care problem in the United States.
“Ultimately, we hope that this research will generalize beyond experimental settings,” she says. “Governments and policy-makers may be able to use this information to improve facilities in shared spaces.”
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
The paper, “‘No man is an island’: effects of interpersonal proximity on spatial attention” by Ancret Szpak, Michael E.R Nicholls, Nicole A. Thomas, Simon M. Laham and Tobias Loetscher, was published online in Cognitive Neuroscience on May 11, 2015.