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iSpace: How iPods (and similar devices) help us endure crowds

Listening to music through headphones helps create an invisible zone of personal space that enables us to be in closer physical proximity to strangers.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Listening to music through headphones helps create an invisible zone of personal space that enables us to be in closer physical proximity to strangers.

When we enter crowded public places with our iPod or other portable listening device plugged into our ears, it’s not just the music that’s making the experience more bearable. Listening to music through such devices also helps create an invisible zone of personal space that enables us to be in closer physical proximity to strangers.

But only when we’re listening to music we deem emotionally “positive.”

Those are the key findings from a recently published study led by a team of psychologists at the University of London. Here’s a summary of the study’s experiments as described by science journalist Christian Jarrett on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog:

[The researchers] asked dozens of participants to walk towards an unfamiliar experimenter (a man or woman) until they got so close it felt uncomfortable. In another condition, the experimenter walked towards the participant, and again the participant indicated when it felt too close. Crucially, this procedure was followed in silence, listening to positive music or listening to negative music. The unfamiliar musical clips, composed for an earlier experiment, were in the style of instrumental movie music. Sometimes the music was played over headphones via an iPod, other times it was played over a speaker system in the room. After the experiment, the participants listened to the music clips again and rated how much they affected them emotionally.
Positive music played over headphones (but not speakers) had the effect of shrinking the participants’ sense of personal space, so that the approaching experimenter could walk closer to them before they (the participant) felt uncomfortable. On the other hand, negative music played over speakers (but not headphones) expanded the participants’ personal space, so they felt uncomfortable when the approaching experimenter was further away. These effects were most pronounced in the participants who afterwards reported that they’d been affected emotionally by the music to a greater degree. Music made no difference to the participants’ sense of personal space when they were the ones walking towards the experimenter.

The shrinking of personal space that occurred during these experiments was not the result of the music causing a mental distraction, the study’s authors add. Why? Because the volunteers’ personal space didn’t contract when they were listening to “negative” music, which other research has shown to be more attention grabbing than “positive” music.

Emotion-laden space
The study’s findings are consistent, say its authors, with the idea “that positive emotion signals a safe environment (and hence allows for a smaller personal space) while negative emotion signals an unsafe environment (and thus calls for a larger personal space).”

It’s also consistent with the hypothesis that our sense of personal space is regulated by the amygdala, an area of the brain that plays a key role in emotion.

“Our study might help to understand the benefit that people find in using personal music players in crowded situations, such as when using the public transport in urban settings,” the authors conclude. “In situations in which there are little possibilities for personal mobility and personal space is constantly compromised, a portable device allowing for a change in the perceived space around would be highly desirable.”

So, instead of complaining about people who “wear” iPods in public and labeling them anti-social, maybe we should be thanking them for helping to ensure our crowded spaces are, well, more comfortably crowded.

And that can only be a good thing now that we’re sharing space with 7 billion other people.

The study was published in the October issue of the open-access journal PLoS One, and can be read in full online.

A footnote: The introduction to this study offers this interesting historical tidbit: “SONY corporation developed the first walkman [in 1979] as a means of making the journeys in public transport more tolerable.” It also notes that when streetcars became introduced in the 19th century, large numbers of people suddenly found themselves having to awkwardly “look or be looked at by others for minutes or even hours without any meaningful social interaction (e.g. talking).” What those streetcar riders wouldn’t have given for an iPod.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Randall Ryder on 11/03/2011 - 07:48 pm.

    Somewhat skeptical that the intervening variable is sound by speakers or headphones and the type of sound. One’s level of comfort is also affected by the general surroundings when they are wearing headphones. In fact, there ma be cases when, in unfamiliar surroundings, one’s personal space shrinks as they are dealing with too much visual ambiguity or uncertainty.

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