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Lift Behaviour and Psychology


Over the last few months, my average commute to work has significantly changed.

It has moved from being a simple car journey to the office to now involving Car, Train, Tube, Walk and then Lift process. Occasionally stopping somewhere along that trip for a well needed shot of caffeine.

Apart from significantly increasing my commuting time, it brings me into more contact with a greater diversity of people. Yes, people. People from all walks of life. Age, sex, race, religion, morals, manners, intelligence and everything else that makes us all so uniquely special.

As a self confessed "people-watcher", this provides me with a great deal of material to ponder over throughout the day. Things like ;

  • Why do some people wait until they get to the ticket barrier before looking for their ticket in their handbag?

  • Is it socially acceptable to catch a tube ride wearing a onesie?

  • Why would you talk very loudly on a phone, underneath a sign that says "quiet zone"?

  • How many people can you simultaneously be in physical body contact with on a packed train (my record is 8)?

Anyway, I digress and perhaps some of the above may feature in later posts. However, the main topic of this post is focused on the last part of my journey, the Lift (or elevator for my US chums).

Everyday I take the lift up approximately 25 floors. It takes no longer than 60 seconds, but those 60 seconds are probably the most awkward seconds of the whole day. A dozen or so adults crammed into a little cube, each trying their best to avoid eye contact or doing anything that raises unwanted attention.

They often say that if you put 10 kids in a lift, then by the time it reaches the top, the kids will all be "best friends" and know names, birthdays, schools and other things that help to build relationships. For adults, or "repressed children" as I like to call them, it couldn't be further from the truth. Not one word spoken. Not one name learned and not one relationship built.

A report first published on the BBC website suggests that when most of us step into lifts, we sort of "shut-down". We become "mute", stare at our feet or whip out our mobile device.

We are then further challenged when more people enter the lift. Where do we stand or position ourselves in such an artificially restricted environment.

As a solo traveller, you can stand where you want in your own personal box. Look up, look in the mirror, do your makeup, even sing if you want to. But then when you are joined by a co-lifter, social dynamics start to come in to play.

Passengers seem to instinctively know where to stand, in order to give themselves the maximum amount of personal space. With two passengers, they will instinctively stand in opposing corners. Enter a third passenger and a triangle formation appears. Four passengers will generally see each one stand in a corner, effectively creating a square. Beyond four and things start to get interesting. A fifth passenger will normally occupy the position in the middle, emulating the 5 dot pattern found on a dice.

After that, from my own experience, it is anyone's game as to where people would stand. And as the number of passengers increase, so the amount of personal space decreases. In an ordinary situation, we would normally leave approximately an arm's length between us and the next person (our "personal space"). In a packed lift, this "personal space" simply doesn't exist and in such circumstances, we are evolutionary hard wired to act in a way that cannot be construed as threatening, odd or in any way ambiguous. The easiest way to do this is to avoid eye-contact, stare at our feet or as previously mentioned, just "shut-down".

So, next time you are in a lift, watch for the above patterns to unfold. If you are like me however, given this little insight, why not make your journey a little bit more fun and play with social norms a little. If you are first in the lift, stand bang in the middle and observe how the next person positions themselves. Take it a step further and rather than just face forwards, get in the lift and face backwards. Woooah! Or to really freak out your fellow passengers, why not attempt to unleash your inner child and strike up a conversation. Although don't push it too far or you may find the elevator unintentionally stops at the HR floor and you receive a helping hand out.


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