Aggressive Conversations Can Expand Your Interpersonal Space

Many people have experienced the urge to cross the road or move seats on a bus after a conversation taking place nearby suddenly becomes aggressive. Now, a scientific study has shown how the size of your interpersonal space changes depending on the tone and content of other people’s conversations.

The research was conducted by instigators from Anglia Ruskin University, University College London, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Genoa.

“Interpersonal space is the space we maintain between ourselves and others to feel comfortable. In this study, we showed for the first time that the tone of social interactions influences the size of this space, even when we are not directly involved in the interaction. We found that the average size of someone’s interpersonal space becomes larger after listening to an aggressive conversation taking place nearby. This is likely to be an attempt to maintain a safety zone around ourselves, and avoid any interaction or confrontation with those involved in the aggressive conversation,”

said co-author Dr Flavia Cardini, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University.

Stop-distance Experiment

In the experiment, participants listening to two recorded conversations between two people, one aggressive and one neutral.

After listening to each conversation, the psychologists measured the comfortable level of that person’s interpersonal space using a ‘stop-distance’ technique. This involved participants listening to a recording of footsteps walking towards them immediately after the conversations ended.

aggressive condition

The left panel shows the average time (and standard error) at which participants stopped the footsteps recording for the neutral condition (M 4.55 s, SE 1.06 s) and aggressive condition (6.96 s, SE 1.13 s).
The right panel shows how the participants’ responses would be translated in the space domain.
Credit: Eleonora Vagnoni, et al CC-BY

They were asked to stop the recording as soon as the footsteps were too close to them and they started to feel uncomfortable. By using the sound of footsteps rather than someone physically walking towards them, it removed any visual bias based on physical appearance.

After listening to the aggressive conversation the participants stopped the sound of the approaching footsteps further away from their body (on average 7 seconds away) compared to after listening to a neutral conversation (4.5 seconds away), implying that people want to distance themselves more from others immediately after hearing an ill-tempered conversation.

Interpersonal Space

The space close to our body is important since that it is where we physically interact with stimuli in the external world. Several disciplines have previosuly investigated this space using different paradigms and terminology.

In social psychology, “personal space” is often used to define the emotionally-tinged zone around the human body that people experience as their space and which others cannot intrude without causing discomfort. This definition suggests that personal space only exists during interaction with other people.

In the cognitive neuroscience tradition, instead, this space has been referred to as peripersonal space and has been defined as the space immediately surrounding our body. The discrete coding of peripersonal space in the brain was first revealed by single-cell recordings in monkeys, within a network of interconnected sensori-motor areas. Later, neuroimaging and neurophysiological studies showed a similar fronto-parietal network in humans.

Vagnoni E, Lewis J, Tajadura-Jiménez A, Cardini F (2018)
Listening to a conversation with aggressive content expands the interpersonal space
PLoS ONE 13(3): e0192753. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192753

Top Image: Clem Onojeghuo/Unsplash