Applied Sociology

After being at Stanford for 5 weeks, the dorm I’m living in got together to do an activity called “Crossing the Line” (of which I’m sure many people are familiar) that involves a statement of varying ambiguity being made, followed by everyone who identifies with the statement stepping across a line on the floor for a short amount of time. I’m also taking a sociology class, and I’ll be honest: I was watching people’s behavior most of the time.

As humans, we assign fixed “levels” of preferred intimacy with persons depending on our relationships with them. Our brain—consciously or otherwise—works to maintain that level.

Many factors play into how we calculate our current intimacy (rather than preferred intimacy) with a person. For example, when you say that you are “close” to someone, you mean that you are comfortable with higher levels of intimacy. Literally, though, standing closer to someone increases your current intimacy. If that goes beyond your preferred level, it has to be compensated by decreasing intimacy in some other way. This is why everybody avoids eachother’s gaze in a crowded elevator.

Beyond eye contact and interpersonal distance, other more surprising things influence current intimacy. If you listen to a person’s heartbeat, your preferred interpersonal distance increases. That is, when told to stand a comfortable distance away from the person, you will stand farther away than normal. This works even if the heartbeat is synthesized—you just have to be told that it is from the person in front of you.

This effect works in the other direction. Humans suffer various negative side effects when separated from their intimate partners for long period of time or over long distances. This is, tentatively, a result of the same “preferred intimacy” phenomenon. Skype calls can do much to alleviate this; the sight of a human face works wonders on our social subconscious, even if it is just through a computer screen.

I did not foresee the consequences of taking a sociology class: my perception of large groups is forever changed.


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