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Who Stands Where In A Crowded Elevator And Why?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013 - 09:43 AM

She's in Finland now, getting her Ph.D. at the University of Jyvaskyla, but before that, when she was in Adelaide, Australia, she studied elevator behavior. Rebekah Rousi hung around two tall office towers in town, riding elevators up and down day after day, looking for patterns. When a bunch of people get into an elevator, she wondered, do they segregate in any predictable way? Do tall ones stand in the back? Do men stand in different places than women? Who looks where? She says she wasn't expecting or even predicting a particular configuration, but she found one.

Over and over, she noticed that older "more senior men in particular seem to direct themselves towards the back of the elevator cabins."

Younger men took up the middle ground.

And in the front, facing the doors, backs to the guys, stood "women of all ages."

She's not sure why. It wasn't segregation by height. It wasn't age, since older and younger women co-mingled. Clearly, the people in the back had the advantage of seeing everybody in the cabin, while people in the front had no idea who was behind them. Could there be a curiosity difference? A predatory difference?

There was a second pattern, one that broke along gender lines. "Men," she wrote, "looked in the side mirrors and the door mirrors" to openly check out the other passengers, and/or themselves.

Women didn't do that. "Women would watch the monitors and avoid eye contact with other users (unless in conversation)." They would only look at the mirrors (where they could check out the other passengers) when they were with other women. Eye-wise, the guys were roving, the ladies weren't.

"That's where I started thinking of power," Rebekah wrote me. The men who flocked to the back, who had a better view of their fellow passengers, were consistently older, more "senior" (I'm not sure how she knew that, but it's in her posted paper) and many of them "weren't concerned with 'getting caught' looking in the mirror." They gazed freely, suggesting a sense of privilege. Younger, less powerful men seemed to avoid that space, choosing a middle ground. The back of the box, (unlike the back of the bus in Alabama civil rights days) she decided, might be the elevator power zone.

Or ...

Perhaps a gender analysis is too easy. Power hierarchies in elevators, she wrote, "almost seemed too cliché." This could be about shyness. Bold people choose the back; shy people the front. Does that mean she thinks Australian women are more self-conscious than Australian men? She wouldn't go there, except to say, "I don't really want people to know how vain I am, so looking in the mirror (as a woman or not) when others are in the lift ... is highly avoided." By this analysis, the back of the elevator is the Vanity-Unleashed zone.

Basically, she's still puzzled. A pattern shows up. But the explanation, she said, slipping into academic shyness, "awaits further analysis." Then she added, "I'd be really interested to hear what your listeners (she means you, you reading this) have to say about the issue."


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Comments [45]

Peter from Miami

In my 50s, business owner, private pilot.
Simple strategy... less than 3 floors...stairs.
Otherwise Elevator next to the buttons.
I like to be in control of the machine (or at least have the illusions of control).
And yeah, ladies get out first; standing in the corner where the buttons are one is not in their way.

Mar. 12 2015 06:51 PM

Since reading this blog post, I've been paying attention at work in our 7-floor elevator.

I work in technology on the Engineering floor (5), and I'm a woman. As long as the elevator is filled with Engineers - disproportionately introverts, as I understand it - we will all equally space ourselves around the walls to lean back and observe regardless of sex, age or rank. None of us like standing in the center. We're more likely to engage in a comfortable silence. We're more likely to make culture-specific jokes about whether or not the floors we're visiting are the Fibonacci sequence. We might start or continue a technical conversation. We're not very likely to make eye contact with strangers or make small talk with them, though we'll usually respond politely if someone else insists. How well we know at least one other person in the elevator largely controls our level of interaction, but I also consistently see that the Engineers, myself included, are equally comfortable with having a quiet ride with a well-liked teammate if a conversation wasn't already underway when entering the elevator.

More social people from HR, Sales and Project Management will tend to stand towards the center near the doors. Whereas the engineers can stand in a comfortable silence, I rarely see these folks join us in that experience. They are often dressed "better" than the Engineers (who tend to prefer t-shirts and comfy sneakers, which is allowed at most tech companies in Seattle): more suits, pressed-shirts and polished shoes for the men, more carefully selected dress-up clothes, fancy shoes and makeup for women. They usually stand in obvious discomfort, staring at the floor number.

Staring at the floor number, in general, seems to be a signal of discomfort in the elevator.

I wonder how much temperament matters - if we observe introverts, ambiverts and extroverts, is there any consistent behaviour? I wonder how much culture and subculture matters. I wonder if people who've read the Gift of Fear by Gavin deBecker behave differently in elevators than those who haven't.

Jun. 08 2013 11:03 AM
Dryden from San Francisco

The lunchtime rush back up to my floor was beset with a crowded elevator. The entire group tended to organize the elevator by which floor people would disboard.

The downward commute simply was a challenge to distribute people comfortably with the expectation that the nearest people will inevitably be on top of you. (If you observe people congregating the doors from the rear, consider this as a hint to use less cologne)

I graciously thank self-appointed elevator operators while secretly hoping the door close button is covered with a healthy gene pool of papillomavirus.

May. 30 2013 03:18 PM
Anne O from Franklin, TN

I was so amused by the findings of this study. I'm a 66 year old woman standing under 5'4" and I always move to the rear of the elevator and look around at people, making eye contact and even chatting with men and women alike unless they are obviously set on "pretending they are alone". I find people interesting and, yes, I am curious by nature, so I guess that's why I like to stand in the rear; it's easier to observe. I find other women are more receptive to eye contact and talk from me, but some men appear to be uncomfortable when spoken to by a woman on the elevator.

May. 17 2013 02:29 PM
Nishant Mehta from Malaysia

I'm a strategy head at a multinational advertising group.
The vital observation for me is that people pull out their mobile phones, lock, unlock and aimlessly fiddle with it to avoid eye contact and assume they are alone in there.

May. 15 2013 08:45 PM
Christen Anderson from Toronto, Ontario

When I enter a crowded elevator first I usually move to the back to make room, and if I get on last I stay at the me that just feels like natural etiquette. it would seem strange if an older man pummeled his way through a crowd when he was the last on just so he could leer and other people through the mirror.
And what if there's no mirror? Do The old men just press their faces into the wall?
Maybe all the women stay near the doors in case they need to make a break for it at the next stop because the leery old men are starting to get out of control.

May. 14 2013 01:34 PM
Jacob G. from London, Ontario

I don't use elevators that often, if at all. However, I do take the bus for 2 hours or more a day during the school year. This paper makes me want to do something similar with all forms of public transportation. I am sure there are patterns everywhere that can be explained by any number of different behaviours or beliefs.

On a side note, the short documentery film Lift, directed by Marc Isaacs, might be of interest to some. You can watch it on Youtube. A very interesting way of getting to know people through small talk.

May. 06 2013 09:20 PM
Helen from San diego

35 years ago my college roommate and I observed hours of elevator behavior for her Pysch 101 class. Funny the results were fairly similar!

May. 02 2013 01:23 AM
Liz from Minnesota

I'm on the 16th floor of a 19 floor building and riding the elevators up and I haven't noticed this particular pattern emerge. But there is something that we joke about as the "law of elevator diffusion". Each time someone gets off the elevator, the remaining passengers will redistribute themselves so everyone has equal space. It creeps people out if you don't move away. It's the same on buses and trains. If lots of people get off and space is available, people will move to avoid sitting directly next to someone.

May. 01 2013 03:49 PM
Ed from NYC

I typically try my best to stay as closest to the door as possible. When the elevator opens, I can inhale fresh air : ).

May. 01 2013 01:40 PM
Suzie from Dallas

Isn't it obvious that the men stand in the back to allow the women off first?? And also of interest, according to my understanding etiquette, when entering an elevator, men get ON first. I read that this is to assume any danger in case the elevator in not operating properly.

May. 01 2013 01:37 PM
Jul from CA

I'm a 30 year old shortish female. I think I tend to stand in the front, standing in the back with men blocking the exit would make me more nervous than having someone behind me.

Apr. 28 2013 04:21 PM
Jerry from Miami

I think the observations are based upon some form of "courtesy" that is perceived to be "correct" by those on an elevator. One of my pet peeves is the men who are in the front of the elevator refusing to get off at their floor until all the women in the back crawl over them so they can let them get out of the elevator first. They think this is being a "thoughtful and courteous" gentleman. Actually, it is not. The courteous thing to do is that, if you are at your floor, walk off the elevator and get out of the way for those behind you. Men, mostly older men, make a big show of "allowing" the women to leave first. An elevator is nothing more that a vehicle that is used to get upstairs. If I did not have to take an elevator, I would prefer it because I just want to get to my business. I do not want to make friends or do anything that will increase the time spent. Also, I guess I believe that those who talk on the elevator are just like people who think that their cellphone calls are so important that they must speak loudly so all can hear them. From my view, people tend to go the path of least resistance. If you are first in, you stay in the middle or to one side if you anticipate others will be getting on. If others get on, you start moving back or to the side anticipating that you will be getting off. If you are on the 35th Floor, it is smarter to be in the back so that people do not have to push you aside to get off. If your floor is next, you move to the side because you will be getting off soon. From my view, all the other psychological analysis is trying to seek predictability from random situations and they do not reflect the usual dynamics that, for example, govern when you are in a group meeting with bosses, peers and administrative aids.

Apr. 27 2013 04:17 PM
Sam Hannigan from Massachusetts

I am an elevator inspector. My job is to test and inspect elevators, write reports based on the findings, and certify them for use. Because I am in elevators all the time, I have also noticed with some amusement how people tend to align themselves in an elevator cab. During the inspections, I am usually in the company of one or more additional elevator technicians, and we are all most often wearing some type of uniform or another type of highly visible means of identifying us as elevator professionals. This quite often provokes some sort of nervous laughter or other reaction from passengers entering the elevator, with the most frequently offered comment being something like, "Well, at least if we get stuck, we have the right people here!"
I have also noticed that, because elevators are our workplace, we are often engaged in conversation during our time in the elevator cab. This can be viewed as a breach of elevator etiquette among passengers joining us, at least if I am reading facial expressions and body language correctly. Many times people leap to the assumption that because of our presence in the elevator, there must be something wrong with it, and therefore, our casual conversation, many times completely unrelated to elevators, reflects a lack of concern for what must surely be a dire set of circumstances.
By far the most amusing reactions come when we have removed an escalator from service. (Unlike an elevator, there are absolutely no circumstances during which we permit passengers during an inspection.) The series of expressions flash across faces in quick succession: surprise, confusion, hope, annoyance, resignation. Honestly, it seems that some people, when inconvenienced, quickly lose their veneer of civility.

Apr. 27 2013 10:21 AM
Doc from NE Cali / NW Nevada

Once in some undergrad intro class I did a final paper on spacing at urinals. I'm sure I became known as the campus pervert - hanging outside a bathroom, then went in to see where people sat, and to control for right and left-handedness got a good correlation on dominant hand on which hand held one object, the tried to catch what hand they used to turn on water or grab a towel to dry off their hand. The findings? Who can remember 40 years later - and was it really all THAT important anyway? You know how it is, anything to make the prof happy - and nothing like a novel idea to grab that 'A' we all thought meant something at the time! --

Apr. 26 2013 04:15 PM
Matthew from Paris, France

A very interesting take on elevators and power, although I'd be weary of the results because there are perhaps too many factors involved, one being the person taking the data has a significant influence in the result. I'm curious to know if the data would bear similar results with a male scientist doing the same experiment.
Elevator culture is different in Paris, France. For example most strangers say hello and goodbye to each other, and I've even had some small talk with some of them.

Apr. 23 2013 02:36 PM
Jackie from NJ

I find this interesting. I am a female in my 20s and always go to the back corner of the elevator. I like to have the comfort of the elevator on both sides of me, instead of an unfamilair person. I also look at people all the time on the elevator, so I guess I dont fit the female stereo-types for this one!

Apr. 23 2013 12:17 PM
Meg from Denver

I take the stairs!

Apr. 22 2013 02:13 PM
Gary B from Flowery Branch, GA

I usually stand in a corner of an elevator and look up. I don't want anyone to feel like I'm staring at them or confronting them in any way. My goal in an elevator ride is to get on and off without any human interaction. However, if I am in the back it is more likely that I'll take a glance around and see who is in the thing where as if I'm in the front I'm not going to turn around and see.

If i'm in the elevator alone I walk around and look all over the place, it's awesome.

Apr. 22 2013 08:43 AM
Michael from Bremerton, WA

Personally, I tend to gravitate to the sides or back of the elevator. The Primary reason is to keep clear of people of getting or getting off of the elevator. The other reason is that The sides and back wall of an elevator tend to have rails to hold onto in case the elevator comes to a sudden stop, or for something to hold onto if the cable breaks.

Isn't it simply amazing how people can rationalize certain behaviors?

Apr. 21 2013 05:35 PM
Luis from San Antonio, Texas

I wonder if it was a matter of habit for that particular building. For example, would the same pattern exist if it were an elevator in a different building with a different population of people? Also, I think it may have to do with personality as well. I tend to go to the back corner (normally the right if it's available) because I want to be out of the way of the doors as to not inconvenience people coming in. Also, I don't like having people stand behind me. Makes me anxious. I was also wondering if the time at which a person entered had any effect. For example, if it was empty, did the women still go to the front? And if it was full, did the men still try to make their way to the back? Very interesting and thought-provoking study.

Apr. 21 2013 03:52 PM
PhysiPhile from ur head

I've learned two things

Elevators are a prime place to people watch

Tom from Washington DC takes pictures of peoples feet in elevators

Apr. 21 2013 03:15 PM
PhysiPhile from ur head

guess riding in the back of the bus is what made rosa parks so brave :)

Apr. 21 2013 03:11 PM
Anna Suki from NJ, USA

21 year old female (psychology student) who considers herself socially awkward. I generally move towards the corner since I don't like crowds or the feeling of being in a cramp elevator. Most elevators are rectangular in shape so staying in the corners provides the illusion of more space. At the same time I prefer the back because of its secure feeling: people don't see me but I do seem them without actually having to see their faces. So I guess my final/ideal position would be in the back corners. Plus it's not that hard to get off when you're in corners it's all in the matter of curving around people. Smiles.

Apr. 20 2013 09:22 PM
J Stallone from New York

I am a female student, 22, and I often ride in the back of the elevator. When I stand in the front I feel as though people are looking at me and it makes me uncomfortable. I've caught people numerous times staring at me. I'm not shy, but I don't like being the center of attention. I also don't like moving out of the way for other people to leave at every floor, so I tend to move to the back.

Apr. 20 2013 06:41 PM
Charles from Santa Cruz, CA

I'm old enough that my first experiences with elevators in public spaces was also with operator controlled elevators. In crowded situations, the operator would request that people move towards the back. I do that automatically, still, to facilitate the entrance of more people, though sometimes I have to request someone at the front to press my floor number or to excuse my way through the crowd to exit at my floor. The only time I stick towards the front is if I can't get to the back -- the elevator is already crowded -- or I know I am getting off very soon and there's no reason to inconvenience myself and others. I also try to pay attention to the situation of the people getting on or off and to move around as to inconvenience them and myself as little as possible.

Apr. 20 2013 05:01 PM

I'm surprised there was no mention of space division. For example, one person can stand wherever they want, but when another person boards the elevator they each tend to spread out and occupy roughly half the cabin (rather than the second person sidling up close to the first). Add a third and the space is divided again.

I'd be very interested to know if elevator behavior varies by culture as it does with the accepted "personal space" perimeter.

Apr. 20 2013 01:28 PM

I always try to stay at the front as close as possible to the door, so I can exit right away in case a passenger has gas.

Apr. 19 2013 12:15 PM

I think Anton (above) is on to something. Interesting thought about male exutives being at higher floors. And there is another gender component to the segregation, possibly it's because men (especially older, more traditional, and higher status ones) who are likely to want to be chivalrous and allow women and other "subordinates" to exit the elevator first. And that is definitely a power dynamic, though I don't know about the hypothesis of some sort of staring-power.

Apr. 19 2013 08:36 AM

Next time you are in an elevator close to the door, turn around and say "I'm sure you all are wondering why we have gathered here ?"

Apr. 19 2013 06:07 AM

I am 32 year old male and I generally try to move to a corner of the elevator with my back against the wall. It could be the front or back. If its full I dont get in unless I really have to. I am a shy person. I have always been uncomfortable standing in the front facing towards the door.

Apr. 19 2013 05:58 AM
Nathan Shore from Pasadena, CA

I am a male of average height (20 years of age). I stand in the back to consciously be courteous to other passengers. I tried to stand in the front after reading this, but I feel uncomfortable and unsafe in the confined space with people behind me. I can't explain why, I feel a fight or flight mode kick in immediately.

Apr. 19 2013 04:39 AM
Greg from San Francisco

I am a 50 year old male. I stand in the back because I don't want people to stare at my hair (which I dye), to notice my skin (which is no longer youthful). I do this especially if the lighting is bright and harsh. Then I look at the others in front of me (both genders) and covet their youthful appearances.

Apr. 18 2013 07:12 PM
CM from Pennsylvania

22 yrs old, student, always stand in the back. I don't like people being behind me.

Apr. 18 2013 12:52 PM
Craig from Lubbock, Texas

I am a man in my mid-thirties of average male height (6'0"). I tend to step to the back of the elevator or to the front side of the elevator with the numeric panel. I "think" that I do this to be courteous to ladies or elderly gents. For example, in the back of the elevator, I am able to allow other riders to exit first (ladies first). In the front near the numeric panel, I can assist by holding the door open or commanding floor stops. Another reason that I prefer the back, is that other people can't look at me without me also seeing them. I am sometimes conscious of the spying reason as a decision point.

Apr. 17 2013 04:33 PM
Jim Kerr from Pawtucket, RI

Many years past I found myself riding up in an elevator with a tall, gaunt friend. I was getting off on three and he was continuing on. Just for a chuckle as the doors opened for me I loudly spoke, " Andy, that's amazing that you're related to Richard Speck." As I disembarked I turned to watch the doors close on him and all the other passengers, who were stepping back as close to the walls as possible.

Apr. 17 2013 04:22 PM
audrey greene from USA

I'm a 58 yr old, very tall woman. I think women stand or move to the front in elevators for safety. I want to be able to get off as soon as possible. I don't want to be trapped. In an otherwise empty elevator, I stand next to the buttons.

Apr. 17 2013 09:23 AM
Tom from Washington DC

I'm a quite older gentleman who stands in the middle while I make announcements about my opinions during the elevator ride. People look at me but I don't have all that much time to look around. I'm too busy talking. "What is the sense of having an elevator ride if you don't give an elevator speech" I always say!
And I often do say it. The speech varies with my constituency. I like elevators because people are so captive and often nervously polite. And I always wonder, "who are these people, what do they think, and where are they going". I have a whole series of pictures of peoples feet in elevators. Women are very interested in those pictures. Later I go back down the elevator and the same thing happens. More often than not I am just left wondering. Once in a while I meet a new friend and we continue our discourse. If they are lucky I even let them get a word in edgewise.

Apr. 17 2013 04:14 AM
Ted from Houston

In terms of gender differences, is it any different in an elevator than anywhere else except that the researcher had a captive audiance so it was easier to study the patterns. There was a time when you men were taught "ladies first" and some variants, precede her down the stairs, follow her up the stairs so that you can catch her if she trips, walk on the street side so that she won't be splashed by passing cars,etc. That isn't taught any more as it is no longer politically correct so it it a wonder that older men move to the back so the the ladies can get off first? In terms of looking around, or looking ahead, prove me wrong about this, but men are always wondering if they have a chance and look at the ladies for an indication of interest. The women understand that if they are observed checking out a man, that he may well interpret it as an indication of interest and make and take the next step. For many women, they would rather avoid eye contact with a male than have to ward off an unwelcome advance. This does not prove my thesis, but the fact that the women were willing to look around when it was only other women on the lift is consistent with it. In terms of power, I don't think it is an issue at all. I think accross the trends that you see are driven by consideration of others more than anything else. If you are tall, standing next to a taller wall does make sense in terms of not making a shorter person feel like they are in a canyon, etc. Ladies first is an attempt at courtesy, appreciated by some perhaps not by others. Women spend a lot of time trying to look great before they go out, men consider it a compliment to then to observe the results of their efforts and secretly would feel flattered if a woman were to check them out the way that they check women out, etc, etc.

Apr. 17 2013 02:20 AM
Anton from Russia,Moscow

Today I tried to observe some patterns as well, but no luck as the samples were not representative at all (gender homogeneous or just messy). However some thoughts occured to me:

Hypothesis one: Courtesy.
In Russia there is a courtesy rule, according to which men enter the elevator first, leave it last (let's name it First In Last Out rule). That would explain why the back wall of the elevator is occupied by men. Moreover there is a senioriy rule, according to which senior citizens enter whatever space first.
So the pattern described in the research (elder men-other men-all women) would be a perfect example of extreme politeness and courtesy. Hence,people probably just naturally self-organise in accordance with these rules. Otherwise it's just a messy crowd.

Hypotheses two: Location, location,location.
If it's an office building, an elevator pattern might reflect departments location. For instance(based on my personal example), senior men are generally(I mean statistically) executives in the company, therefore they are heading up to the executive floor. As they intent to leave an elevator last-they staty behind. Women are generally dominating HR departments, which are located at the first floors, hence all of them are staying in the forefront. Finally, middle-aged men are just spread in the remaining space, as they are the majority, and their departments(other from HR and exec-floor) are in the middle of the building.

Considering all, I would suggest that the pattern is drived by rules of courtesy (depending on geoagraphy I guess), location (office building;departments in the office etc), gender structure (gender/age pyramid; occupation by gender etc).

That was sort stream of consiousness, but hope it helps somehow.

P.S. Rebekah, thanks for the thought provoking research!

Apr. 17 2013 02:18 AM
Toni from Italy

Maybe the older men go to the back to avoid anyone
Seeing bald patches they might have? Just a thought...
Also, this seems like the cave instinct, where the male
Stays where he can keep an eye on things- who is
Coming in and out of the elevator... Just like studies
Have shown that men prefer to be seated facing the room
In a restaurant as opposed to having their back
To the room and/ or door... Btw I am writing from phone so excuse
Poor punctuation and grammar, please!

Apr. 16 2013 06:06 PM

I'm a 33 year old male, I usually stand in the middle to back and look all around even if I'm the only one in the elevator.

Apr. 16 2013 05:40 PM

I am a 44 year old woman and tall. I move to the back of elevators out of politeness, so shorter people won't feel claustrophobic standing between two or more tall riders. In an elevator of other tall people, I stand closer to the front so I won't feel towered over.

Apr. 16 2013 05:16 PM
Shannon from Delaware, USA

I always stand in the back right-hand corner and look at everybody. I'm a 30 year old female. Am I in the minority?

Apr. 16 2013 04:51 PM
Stuart Coutts

I find, in South Africa, where I live, people in elevators tend to form an amphitheatre, more or less around the door. Whomever enters first goes straight for the walls, no matter how few people enter, and very seldom to people turn their backs to strangers. There is little eye contact.

I study these things as an animator, so I wouldn't offer an academic opinion on why this is, though perhaps someone here finds this interesting.

Lovely illustrations by the way :)

To everyone involved at Radiolab,

Keep up the great work!

Apr. 16 2013 04:16 PM

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