Why do we behave oddly in lifts?

A recent study done by Dr. Lee Gray of the University of North Carolina examined the most overlooked form of public transport, lifts (or elevators to our American cousins).
I mean c’mon, we’ve all noticed this before. We all do it. Whenever we get into a lift we stop all emotions and put on our best zombie impression.

We all use them. In fact, most of us use them on a daily basis. It’s a mode of transport. A way of getting from A to B, but it happens to be the least memorable part of our journey. You remember the last time you travelled by plane or car, but not a lift (unless you are actually in a lift reading this).

So why don’t we remember it? Well Dr. Lee Gray says it’s because we just shut down in those tiny little tin cans. You walk in, you press some buttons and then you stand still in complete silence until you reach your target destination. A lift is a massively awkward place, and it’s even more awkward when people get in.

We could be waiting for the lift with a friend, having the most intense debate about politics or science, maybe even roaring with laughter or we’re halfway through reliving last night’s drunken antics. Whatever we’re talking about when the lift arrives, we stop and stand in silence.
Even the way we stand in a lift is systematically predetermined. We all do it. The study sums it up by comparing it to a six sided die. When we’re on our own we can do whatever we want – it’s our own little box. Talk to ourselves (we’ve all done it)… Whack out our yoga mat and do some crouching tiger hidden dragon… Do the Gangnam Style… (Okay, so maybe not that last one but you get my point). When the second person enters, we take to different corners, standing diagonally away from each other to create the greatest distance (like the sides of a die). With three people, we unconsciously form a triangle. With the fourth it’s a square with everyone taking up their own corner. The fifth person stands in the space in the middle and all hell breaks loose with the sixth.

Once we’re all in, we all follow the same protocol; look straight ahead, look down or look at our phones.

BUT WHY? WHAT IS WRONG WITH US? Well it’s simple; we just don’t have enough personal space. Guys will know this when they stand at the urinal. NEVER stand next to someone, it’s fucking weird. When we meet people, we usually keep them at arm’s length but in a lift it’s just not possible, so we act a bit funny. In the back of our minds we’re all just a little anxious. In such enclosed spaces it becomes vital not to act threatening or odd or make eye contact (and you definitely don’t make eye contact at the urinal). That’s why we just switch off.

Apologies if I’ve just woken you up to the whole lift experience; I dare you not to think about the sides of a die next time you’re in one.

Elliot Needham

The full article can be found on BBC Website


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