Why people act so oddly in elevators

What’s up with how people act in elevators?

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.

7 Responses to Why people act so oddly in elevators

  1. Tim Clark March 20, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

    Jonathan, wow, I felt a little uncomfortable reading this! I am totally guilty of finding that imaginary space in an elevator and staring at it. I’ll be sure to smile next time. Great observations.

    • Friendly, just not in elevators March 21, 2016 at 6:27 am #

      I am comfortable making small talk with another man in an otherwise empty elevator, but am much less comfortable doing the same with a woman. Mainly want to avoid any reason for her to be concerned with ‘being alone with that large guy’, so I just studiously read email, check the time, etc.

      • TRedd March 21, 2016 at 10:02 am #

        I always talk in the elevator with a monkey or human. It is a great place to meet people and leverage your ability to speak without fear. I usually suggest that if the elevator stops at another floor we both lean into the door and tell them the place is full – while hitting the >< close door button.
        Great elevator ice breaker.

        Born in a Elevator…..

    • Jonathan Becher March 31, 2016 at 1:46 pm #

      I think we all do it Tim. I’ve tried the smile thing a few times now and it really works.

  2. audreykinley June 29, 2016 at 5:35 pm #

    I guess I never noticed people behaviors on an elevator til I read this. And it does make me laugh a little because people do act a little strange on elevators. Sometimes elevators can be fun though, you just have to have to right people on board. http://goldenstateelevatorservice.com/

  3. Noetic November 24, 2016 at 6:01 am #

    Ha Ha,

    One sure way to change people is …
    to give them a psychological test.

    Apart from the fact that I avoid elevators like the plague (the thought of wasting 2 hours of my life in a jammed lift being the main reason), the exercise is darn good too –
    so the next time I am going to make sure I talk to everyone in the cubicle.

    My brother embarrasses his kids no end by engaging in conversation with everyone he ends up queueing with, well now, no-one in elevators is safe from me.


  4. Jen September 3, 2023 at 12:02 am #

    Sorry, it’s far more odd to suggest anyone has to smile at a stranger. People don’t even avoid looking anymore; they stare you down as though it isn’t weird, rude and creepy to do so. Strangers have a lot of trouble minding their business, especially when it comes to those who are different. If you don’t look like a clone of everyone else or are vulnerable looking, you’re stared at. The threat can be real, people in elevators now position themselves to stare me down. I don’t owe complete strangers anything, just keep to your business. I take the stairs or escalator if available. Rude and unempathic people are what causes tension.

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