When two people who don’t know each other find themselves alone in an elevator, they invariably stand as far away from each other as possible. They certainly don’t face one another, and it’s unlikely they make eye contact or speak. If the elevator is crowded, people stare at the ceiling, at the ground, or at the floor selection buttons – doing everything they can to avoid interacting.
University of Chicago Professor Dario Maestripieri believes this behavior is an instinctive response to a perceived dangerous social situation. Professor Maestripieri, who studies the biology of social behavior of human and nonhuman primates, claims the way the mind responds to danger hasn’t changed in millions of years. In a Wired article, he writes:
Much of people’s behavior in elevators is not the result of rational thinking. The threat of aggression is not real, yet our mind responds as if it is, and produces behaviors meant to protect ourselves.
Maestripieri’s research studies behavior in rhesus macaques, primates which are evolutionarily distant from humans. If two macaque monkeys are trapped together in a small cage, they act a lot like humans in an elevator. They avoid eye contact, instead staring at some imaginary point outside the cage. The monkeys sit still in separate corners, so as not to accidentally bump into each other. Both behaviors help reduce the likelihood of a perceived threat.
Despite these precautions, without a stress release, tension between the two monkeys will increase and eventually one of them will lose their temper. To avoid this eventuality, macaques bare their teeth – “the evolutionary precursor of the human smile.” Smiling often precedes mutual grooming which in turn eliminates the likelihood of aggression.
Maestripieri can be controversial but his conclusions seem sound. If you find yourself alone with a stranger in an elevator, don’t stare at the floor. Instead eliminate the tension by smiling. Just don’t start grooming them too – behavior is already odd enough in elevators.