Do mp3 players 'shrink' our concept of personal space?

A British study finds that listening to music that makes us feel "positive emotions" can actually help us get closer to strangers

Listening to music that makes you happy can make reduce your need for personal space, according to new research.
(Image credit: Tim Pannell/Corbis)

Remember this the next time you board a crowded train: According to new research from the University of London, listening to music through headphones can make us feel more comfortable with people packed closely around us. The authors of the study, published in the journal PLoS One, concluded that the right music can shrink our personal space — the comfort zone "around the human body that people feel is 'their space.'" Here's what you should know:

How was the study carried out?

The researchers wanted to know why so many people listen to music through headphones on subways, trains, and buses. They had volunteers listen to piano music — through speakers and headphones — while a stranger walked toward them. Some of the music was meant to stir up positive emotions, some negative. To measure any change in the volunteers' personal comfort zones, they were instructed to say "stop" when they felt the stranger was too close.

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Usually people feel uneasy when strangers come within an arm's reach. But people who used headphones to listen to music evoking positive emotions allowed strangers to get closer, suggesting their personal space had shrunk. The authors concluded that listening to something upbeat on a personal music player can make us "more tolerant" of people packed closely around us. But the reverse also holds true: Music that affects us negatively makes us need more space.

So what should I do to prepare for rush hour?

Pack your iPod with tunes that make you feel good. "Next time you are ready to board a packed train," says Dr. Manos Tsakiris, one of the study's leaders, "turn on your mp3 player and let others come close to you without fear of feeling invaded."

Sources: Eurasia Review, PLoS One, Metro, Science Daily

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