The Inviolable, Invisible Bubble
Most of us would like to believe we don't have much in common with the kind
of people who bully other road users.
New psychological research suggests that air rage, road rage and other
seemingly irrational outbursts of wild-eyed fury could be extreme reactions
to the violation of a set of rules that governs our every waking moment: the
unwritten and unconscious system of body space.
Evidence suggests that we need this space to stay sane.
"We walk around in a sort of invisible bubble," says Phil Leather, head of
Nottingham University's social and environmental research group.
"It's egg-shaped, because we allow people to come closer from in front
rather than behind. An entire language is expressed via the amount of
distance we choose to keep between each other."
In Northern Europe and North America, lovers, close friends and
wrestling partners aside - the average depth of the bubble at the front is
between two and three feet.
When this is intruded upon, the physiological responses can range from
feelings of mild annoyance and tension to a pounding heart, raised blood
pressure, sweating and severe anxiety.
For those with a propensity to aggression, the invisible bubble seems to
mean much more and this can be worrying for the rest of us. We can invade it
People in prison for violent crimes have a bigger need for personal space
than those convicted for non-violent crimes. So even when you're at a
distance that's acceptable to most people, you're already too close to these
violence-prone people and they become extremely furious.
Police and prison officers reporting incidents of violence often say that
everything would be fine until they reached forward to reassure someone by
touching him on the shoulder, and then everything exploded.
The air steward who confronts a drunken passenger is caught in a bind:
the point at which the steward moves closer to offer a calming touch is also
the very moment the personal bubble is at its largest and the most brittle.
The bubble is made up of four concentric layers, according to an American
sociologist, Edward T. Hall. Invasion of the first layer, the intimate distance,
from zero to 45 cm from the body "in public is not considered proper by adult,
Personal distance follows next at 0.5 m to 1 in from the body. For
impersonal interactions, we opt for a social distance of 1.2 m to 3.6 m and
finally the public distance is defined at 3.6 m and beyond.
Most of us don't flip into tantrums of uncontrollable rage when a layer is
invaded. But we do sub-consciously employ a number of techniques to
preserve the integrity of our personal space, either by pretending that the
violation hasn't occurred or by finding ways to vent our mounting fury.
Robert Sommer, a psychologist at the University of California-Davis
conducted a research by invading other people's private zones. Sommer
wandered around the university library, sitting in chairs deemed out of
bounds by the laws of personal space.
He reported that tension levels increased hugely when space was invaded.
Students grew irritated, anxious, fidgety and then got up and left.