Need for personal space – related to psychosensitivity? a Virtual Reality Café study

On there was a nice article about one of our findings with a virtual reality study.

You probably recognize it. One of those situations where you think “Please get out of my personal space…” In the pub, in the subway or just with that colleague who always gets a little too close. Being able to guard your personal space and taking enough distance from other people are important factors in social contact. This article researches psychosis and uses Virtual Reality to do so.

Personal space or interpersonal distance is the distance we take in relation to people in our environment. For everyone it’s the same; intrusion into their personal space causes discomfort. But not for everyone and in all situations the desired interpersonal distance is the same. This makes it a dynamic concept that is influenced by various factors, which are both related to the person and his or her environment. For example, it is known that we increase our personal space when we feel threatened, while it is reduced when we are with acquaintances. Furthermore, the size of our personal space is influenced by cultural norms, age, gender and psychopathology.

Laboratory research has shown that people with a psychotic disorder need greater interpersonal distance than people without psychosis. The authors of this article wonder whether this is also the case for a more ecologically valid research situation (in Virtual Reality, social situations can be more and more credibly recreated) and whether the need for interpersonal distance is related to stressors in the environment. Stressors in the environment were the ethnicity and degree of hostility of the avatars and the hustle and bustle (crowdedness) in the environment. By varying with these stressors, the researchers influenced the level of environmental stress. They did this in four groups of people with different degrees of psychosis sensitivity: with a psychotic disorder, with UHR status, siblings of people with a psychotic disorder (who have an increased risk of developing a psychosis) and healthy controls.

Participants in the study visited five virtual cafes that differed in ethnicity and hostility of the visitors. It also differed per café how crowded it was. The results showed that all groups kept greater interpersonal distance if one of the stressors was present (e.g. if the café is very full, you are an ethnic minority within the café, or other visitors are hostile). Remarkably, no differences were found between the four research groups. In other words: the degree of psychosensitivity of the participants did not influence their reaction to social stressors in terms of interpersonal distance. Interpersonal distance was influenced -in all groups- by the reported stress level and the (pre-measured) degree of social anxiety.

The most important conclusion of the researchers is that the regulation of interpersonal distance in response to general social stressors has not been affected in people with UHR status or a psychotic disorder. They too vary the distance, just like others. Social stress in the environment triggers greater interpersonal distance in people with and without susceptibility to psychosis and in everyone the need for personal space becomes greater under the influence of stress and social anxiety.

Read more:

Geraets, C.N.W., van Beilen, M., Pot-Kolder, R., Counotte, J., van der Gaag, M., & Veling, W. (2017). Social environments and interpersonal distance regulation in psychosis: a virtual reality study. Schizophrenia Research (in press).