If there’s one thing science is good at, it’s showing us how things we do every day affect the way we think and feel about the world in ways we’d never imagine. Take, for example, moving around. You probably wouldn’t expect the simple act of getting closer or further away from a place changes your perspective on that place very much, if at all. But, according to a new study, it totally does.
Sam Maglio and Evan Polman, of the University of Toronto and University of Wisconsin-Madison, respectively, recently hit the streets of Toronto and Vancouver and interviewed pedestrians at strategically chosen subway stops, crosswalks, and a mall. Their questions gauged people’s feelings of proximity to things based on the direction they were headed. Over five studies, which tested both physical and emotional senses of closeness, they arrived at some surprising results:
- Where you’re headed seems closer than the place you’ve left. People waiting for eastbound and westbound trains consistently rated the stops they were going toward as seemingly closer than the stops they were moving away from, regardless of the actual distance.
- You think things are more likely to happen ahead of you. When interviewed at a major intersection halfway between two separate Starbucks locations, people estimated coffee orders were messed up more often at whichever Starbucks they happened to be walking toward. Similarly, people assumed someone would be more likely to win the lottery if they were headed toward where a drawing would be held.
- You feel more similar to people moving toward you. People in Toronto who imagined someone at Los Angeles International Airport felt more connected to that person if he or she was departing on a plane to Chicago (which is on the way to Toronto) rather than arriving from Chicago and hailing a cab back to their home somewhere in L.A.
While the strength of these effects varied based on the type of distance measured—physical closeness versus psychological—Maglio and Polman believe the studies' overall trend of movement affecting our perceptions contributes to an increasingly dynamic picture of how we interact with the world.
“People move around their environments, constantly going closer to some things and farther from others,” Maglio says in a press release. In the study, which is forthcoming in Psychological Science, he and Polman write, "If spatial orientation toward a place, person, or event causes it to feel closer in physical space, it should cause similar feelings of closeness on [other] dimensions of distance as well."
Ultimately, the study is a lesson on how even our most basic senses often are influenced by our surroundings, even when we're totally unaware of it.
"A person who happens to stumble onto a subway platform with no expectation of hopping aboard any train should feel equally far from westward and eastward locations," the researchers write. "However, ask this wayward soul about passengers aboard a train headed toward his station, and he should feel closer to them than people cruising in the opposite direction."