The Pandemic Has Left Us Wanting More Personal Space — Even In Virtual Reality

By Emma L. Barratt

The boundaries of personal space aren’t set in stone. They even vary widely from person to person, between cultures, and between environments (for example, we might give strangers a wide berth on the pavement, yet end up shoulder to shoulder on trains). And though it may not feel like it on public transport, personal space is a consideration in everything from the design of buildings to logistics for large events.

In 2020, Covid brought a whole new element to the table in terms of our comfort levels around other people. Maintaining a physical distance was one of the few things we could do for many months to limit the risk of infection, so for many of us, the personal space boundaries we were used to suddenly became no-gos.

This change is fantastically illustrated by a new preprint from Daphne Halt and team based in Boston, Massachusetts. The researchers believe that our personal space preferences not only tell us about the psychological effects of the pandemic, but may be of use as an indicator of progress towards regaining normality.

To examine how the pandemic has affected people’s personal space preferences, they conducted a small study with 12 participants who had also completed pre-pandemic personal space investigations at the lab.

The team collected data on the size of participants’ personal spaces using the Stop Distance Procedure (SDP) — a task which measures the distance at which participants become uncomfortable with an approaching person, as well as where they become uncomfortable approaching the other party. This task was performed both typically (in a space with another person) and using virtual reality. The distance data collected during the pandemic was then compared to existing pre-pandemic data from each of the participants. Data on beliefs and experiences during the pandemic were also collected.

Results showed that, on average, the distances participants preferred to keep during the pandemic were significantly greater than their pre-pandemic personal boundaries, both in reality and virtually. Participants who showed a greater increase also tended to perceive the risk of infection as higher. Surprisingly, though, there was no relationship between this increase in distance and actual infection risk (as defined by the number of positive cases in the town in which the participant lived).  

The authors say that the increase in people’s boundaries even in virtual reality, where there was no infection risk, may be indicative of changes to neural representations of the “safety zone” around our bodies, as well as sensorimotor circuits in the brain involved in maintaining our safety. These ideas, however, will need further investigation to verify. There’s also a possibility that this increase may persist beyond the pandemic; but, it’s just as possible that our need for more space will revert to pre-pandemic levels once the pandemic is over. The scale at which social distance measures were applied is unprecedented, and as such, it’s difficult to make predictions about what future average personal space boundaries may look like, respective to pre-pandemic levels.

Future research will be instrumental in addressing the above, as well as verifying that this phenomenon holds within a larger sample size. Cross cultural analyses may also be useful, though differences in Covid guidelines are likely to make cross-borders comparisons particularly difficult. Even so, this finding will be particularly interesting to those in fields that require estimations of personal space, and could potentially provide a basis for the development of tools to assess worry about infection in the general population.

Personal space Increases during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Response to Real and Virtual Humans [this paper is a preprint meaning that it has not yet been subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version this report was based on]

Emma L. Barratt (@E_Barratt) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest