For the majority of us who have had the inescapable run-in with elevator etiquette, this post will definitely be of great enlightenment.
So, why is it that regardless of how many frequent elevator miles we accrue, the awkwardness is always relentlessly creeping into every scenario? Well, here’s the neuroscience behind our friend awkward:
I’ll Take That Corner
Let’s be honest, riding in a moving metal box with strangers is not the best place to make new friends. And no one really intends to be the let’s-strike-up-a-conversation-to-make-this-less-awkward character.
Depending on the number of people, most human beings will unconsciously readjust themselves to stand in an area farthest away from other members. For example, in an elevator with two people, usually a diagonal is formed between two corners. This allows the greatest distance to be formed amongst them. When a third person enters, a triangle is immediately formed.
These unreflective actions of certainty are intrinsic behaviors to avoid possibilities of threat in unnatural spaces. Our brains are innately wired to assess the risks and rewards of every emotional choice before taking action. Hence, it is understandable that we are more inclined to meet strangers in open, public spaces because it makes room for engaging in an immediate fight-or-flight response.
Regulation of Personal Space
The amygdala (the key brain region to processing emotions) has been shown through functional MRI studies to have a key role in regulating personal space (Kennedy et. al, 2009). A patient with a lesion (damage/injury to tissue) of the amygdala felt completely comfortable with a stranger standing less than a few centimeters from her, lacking any sense of personal space (or SUPER cognition of friendliness).
But that’s not all! A study by Spezio et. al (2007) in the Journal of Neuroscience, demonstrated that amygdala lesions also severely reduced direct eye contact in social conversations.
Gaze, as you would assume, plays an essential role in dictating the level of intimacy between two individuals. In situations of superficiality we are more likely to look down or away from individuals rather than engage in direct eye contact. In fact, men are more likely to stare at themselves and others through the reflection of the elevator walls/door, while women are more likely to look down.
Another fMRI study found that how attractive you find someone depends on the direction and length of gaze of the target’s face. The ventral striatum (which reinforces sensory stimuli for basic survival) is strongly activated when you lock eyes with someone attractive, proving the brain region to be a convenient precursor in correlating a reward (increase in dopamine) with favorable social interactions.
Embarrassing elevator pick-ups
Don’t worry…we’ve all been there…sort of.
Romantically fantasizing about the hot girl/guy you are going to run into once those reflective bronze gates of paradise open is remarkably stimulating. Yet, praying for a moment like the elevator kissing scene in ‘Drive’ is remarkably improbable.
More often than not, you will say or do something embarrassing. But, don’t worry, because social embarrassment triggers empathy in others. Krach et. al (2011) found the anterior cingulate cortex and left anterior insula were involved in vicarious feelings of others’ “social pain”, whether the protagonist was aware or unaware of being in an embarrassing situation. Hence, we are more likely to feel positively about a person who does something embarrassing rather than brush them off completely.
Although there is a serious lack of neuroscience and psychological studies conducted regarding awkward social behavior, there is enough evidence in imaging studies to suggest that being awkward in specific situations is an unconscious and innate reflex for self-protection.
However, the next time you lock eyes with someone in an elevator and you feel that rush of dopamine…maybe try doing something embarrassingly sweet. Who knows, you may get that elevator kiss.