The Social Space Around Us: the effect of social distance on spatial attention

Author: Ancret Szpak

Szpak, Ancret, 2016 The Social Space Around Us: the effect of social distance on spatial attention, Flinders University, School of Psychology

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Experimental cognitive psychology has predominantly investigated the effects of psychological processes on behaviour in individuals. This knowledge has advanced our understanding of how individuals perceive, orient and attend to objects in their environment and how the environment can also

shape perception. Within these experimental paradigms social influences are deliberately reduced.

Individuals are typically studied in isolation in order to decrease measurement noise associated with

influences occurring outside the laboratory. Although this approach has provided the basis for understanding perception in individuals, it has limited applicability to social conditions that occur naturally in everyday experiences. This limitation is directly related to the research question that is at the core of this thesis: how do an individual’s perceptions and behaviours change under social situations? The focus of this thesis is to investigate how people in our environment can shape our perceptions. This

thesis is comprised of several studies and published works that compare spatial performance under

individual and paired conditions.

Because of the nature of my research question, there is a large overlap between cognitive and social

psychology. The first three chapters in my thesis focus on bringing concepts from these two areas together. The first chapter reviews disordered perceptions in individuals with neurological damage. The

chapter discusses how an understanding of disordered perception informs current knowledge about

the neurological underpinnings of attention in healthy individuals. The second chapter examines perceptions in healthy individuals with a specific focus on spatial attention and conditions that lead to

shifts in attention. The third review chapter highlights relevant knowledge from social psychology

that suggests social conditions can affect the spatial constructs discussed in the review chapters one

and two. The chapter also hypothesises about the influence of interpersonal proximity on shifts in

spatial attention.

The remaining chapters in my thesis contain experiments that I have conducted throughout the

course of my PhD. I developed a new spatial methodology that enabled two participants to complete

a spatial task in close proximity to each other. Core findings of these experiments demonstrate that interpersonal discomfort leads to a withdrawal of spatial attention away from the other person. I hypothesised that a withdrawal of attention occurs in order to increase the perceived distance between

oneself and the other person, thereby making unwanted close interpersonal proximities more tolerable.

I also observed that participant pairs who were given separate tasks were able to conceptually

distance themselves from each other. I hypothesised that because participants were allowed to engage

in their own solo activity, social discomfort was decreased. This thesis also contains two new single-participant methodologies that enabled me to directly compare with and extend existing literature on attention in proximal/distal spaces.

This thesis adds several significant contributions to the field of cognitive psychology. Firstly, published

works in this thesis empirically demonstrate another person can influence shifts in spatial attention.

This important observation opens up the possibility that close interpersonal proximities can also

affect other aspects of attention. Secondly, new methodologies were developed to study joint spatial

attention and could be easily employed in future research that seeks to build upon the studies disseminated in this thesis. The final section of this thesis develops a new model of social attention by

synthesising all theoretical and experimental insights gathered in this thesis.

Keywords: Spatial attention, social proximity, attentional asymmetries, crowding, social discomfort, line bisection, joint action, depth perception

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2016
School: School of Psychology
Supervisor: Professor Mike Nicholls