Why Do We Avoid Social Contact In Elevators & Trains?

If you think about it, standing in an elevator together with a bunch of strangers or sitting opposite them in a train is a pretty unnatural thing to be doing.

Standing next to a stranger in a lift for what can seem like a tiny eternity can be especially awkward.

But it’s awkward for a reason.

Train being unnatural environment

We try to avoid any social contact whatsoever in these enclosed spaces for a specific reason.

Dr. David Lewis writes about this in his book Impulse as follows:

“When forced to share a limited space with total strangers, humans respond in exactly the same way as strange monkeys placed in the same cage. surrounded by their unfamiliar fellow primates they send out non-verbal signal designed to defuse any aggression.

They, like us, perceive such crowding as a potentially hostile situation. The anxiety this perception gives rise to causes them to withdraw into themselves and restrict any social contact to an absolute minimum.

In packed lifts and congested railway carriages we behave in precisely the same way.

We avoid making eye contact by averting our gaze, staring at the floor, or placing some object – a book, magazine or newspaper – between ourselves and our fellow travellers. We may resort to some form of displacement activity, such as fiddling with a pen, repeatedly glancing at our watch or, if in a lift, needlessly jabbing the control buttons.

Only if the amount of time we are obliged to spend with strangers is extended for some reason – perhaps due to a signal failure when travelling by train – will the defensive barriers come down as people start reaching out, however tentatively at first, to their companions.”

– Dr. David Lewis, Impulse

We might be extremely social creatures, but avoiding social contact in enclosed spaces is a survival mechanism. Pretty useful millennia ago.

Nowadays it just makes everything awkward.

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A brief look at LOVE in terms of brain chemicals


What is love?
“Oh, you mean love. You mean the big lightning bolt to the heart where you can’t eat and you can’t work and you just run off and get married and make babies.”
– Don Draper, Mad Men
Love is a complex emotion that is the result of a combination of different brain chemicals.

For instance, love can feel like an addiction because the “feel good” brain chemical dopamine goes down similar neural pathways that are involved in addictive behaviour (Edwards & Self, 2006). A brain in love can look like a brain on cocaine!

But there is more to learn about love in term of brain chemicals:


Dopamine is a feel good chemical and is released whenever the reward system is activated – during sex for instance. But this chemical in general makes love a pleasurable, rewarding experience. Dopamine is released whenever you see, talk, or spend time with your loved one.


Oxytocin is discharged into the blood during orgasm. Oxytocin is important because it reduces stress, increases feelings of trust, and helps overcome neophobia (fear of anything new) – vital in the early stages of romantic love.


In the early stages of romantic love serotonin levels are apparently very low. These low levels are similar to people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This is why love can cause obsessive behaviour.


As nice as feeling in love may be, there’s a lot of stress and insecurity at the beginning of a new romantic relationship. This is caused by the increase in cortisol levels (Marazziti & Canale, 2004).

Falling in love is stressful – stress levels & love

As nice as love may be, there’s a lot of stress at the beginning of a new romantic relationship. Why?

Here’s a list of reasons:

  • You’re not quite sure where you stand – there’s a lot of insecurity because this thing is new to you and there’s no strong commitment yet, which can be nerve-racking,
  • You’re stressing out because you’re afraid somebody might steal your new bf/gf
  • Stress is supposed to help you get through neophobia (the fear of experiencing something new),
  • It’s supposed to help us in social contact and becoming emotionally attached (DeVries et al., 1995).

In long term relationships your stress levels decrease with time because there’s an increase in feelings of security (Esch & Stefano, 2005) and because your love is a good source of social support that has a positive effect on stress and your way of coping with it (Westenbroek et al., 2005).

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What Won’t Get You Through The Dip

Last month I’d published an article about Seth Godin’s book called “The Dip“.

As a continuation (or an aside) to that article, I wanted to add my own two-pence worth and write about what characteristics/personality traits won’t get you past the Dip.

Although this wasn’t covered in the book itself, I feel that thinking about the Dip from this angle will be an enriching mental exercise.

What won’t get you through the Dip?

Inability to withstand uncertainty

Cognitive closure (Kruglanski and Webster, 1996) refers to a natural need to have a definite answer to a question, anything opposed to confusion or ambiguity.

“Two highly related tendencies are assumed to underlie this need, namely ‘urgency’, that is the need to arrive at closure quickly, and ‘permanency’, that is the need to remain at closure once it has been achieved.”

-Hewstone, Stroebe, and Jonas (2012)

As humans, we hate uncertainty and will strive to eliminate it by any means possible. We want cognitive closure ASAP and we want to maintain it for as long as possible.

Olivia Fox Cabane, author of ‘The Charisma Myth’, offers a biological explanation as to why we are so averse to uncertainty. Here’s Olivia:

“[Uncertainty] registers almost like physical pain in the brain. There is a tension, a gap where the brain is not easy again until it is resolved. (…)

Some are more comfortable with this uncertainty. So entrepreneurs are naturally more comfortable.

When you hit a maximum threshold of comfort – fight or flight happens and cognitive function and emotional functioning shuts down.”

The Dip can easily fill you with paralysing self-doubt.

It can be uncomfortable.

Not many can tolerate such a breeding ground for doubt and discomfort.

It can stress you out and run you into the ground.

Entrepreneurs are more likely to withstand the wherewithal of the Dip because they have a higher threshold for the discomfort a lack of certainty generates.


As impulsive creatures, we strive for instant gratification.

This manifests itself in our cravings and our difficulty to come to terms with the fact that success isn’t built overnight. Read more about playing the long game here.

Inability to withstand short-term pain

“When people quit, they are often focused on the short-term benefits. In other words, ‘if it hurts; stop!’ (…)

When a kid drops out of football or karate, it’s not because she’s carefully considered the long-term consequences of her action. She does it because her coach keeps yelling at her, and it’s not fun. It’s better to stop.

Short-term pain has more impact on most people than long-term benefits do, which is why it’s so important for you to amplify the long-term benefits of not quitting.

Never quit something with great long term potential just because you can’t deal with the stress of the moment.”

-Seth Godin, The Dip

Adherence to a fixed-mindset

Carol Dweck in her bestselling book Mindset talks about two mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

A person with a fixed mindset will believe that their abilities are carved in stone and cannot be exceeded.

A person with a growth-mindset, however, will believe that potential is unlimited and you can always get better with each passing day.

If you have a fixed-mindset and you’re in the Dip, you are your own worst enemy. If you don’t make it past this difficult period, you will only have yourself to blame for it.

Personality grows out of the mindset you adhere to.

So choose to develop a beneficial mindset to grow a favourable personality.

Rid yourself of limiting beliefs like “I can’t get through this”.

Catch yourself whenever you do self-deprecating mental gymnastics whereby you feel like giving up, you feel unworthy.

Think of the Dip as a challenge, an opportunity for growth and character development.

If you get through the Dip – that’s fantastic.

If you fail – be well aware that you’re better off for going through that difficult experience.

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Decisions You Make Will Snowball

Bad decisions accumulate.

Let say you go to back-to-back parties on Friday and then Saturday.

Then you get sick because you pushed it and you’re body is worn out.

That sets you back and you can’t properly focus on your looming project deadline.

You finally feel better but to make the deadline you have to pull an all nighter or two.

And then because you’re so exhausted you don’t go to lectures. Or you miss an important doctor’s appointment.

One bad decision lead to another.

These seemingly innocuous tiny choices give way to a sequence of little decisions.

And there is a knock on effect from these decisions.

Making a decision has a ripple effect on the rest of the week.

In fact, the bad decisions you make can have a ripple effect that can last for weeks or even months.

The worse thing is that sometimes your bad decisions don’t just affect you.

They can affect others.

People take time out of your day to help you out if you’re sick.

They cook you dinner.

They are more likely to get sick because of you.

And so on.

At which stage in your decision making did you first go wrong?

Another example.

If you stay up late, you’ll wake up groggy, you might not have the time to make breakfast so you rush, and miss out on vital nutrition, and then you get sick.

This begs the question: at which point in the decision-making process did you first go wrong?

At which stage in your decision making did you start this downward spiral?

Notice how every single decision after that initial bad one affected the choices you made to perpetuate this downward spiral.

It just takes one moment on misjudgment and it’s all over.

The “All or Nothing” mentality

You might be thinking – “well, it’s not all over, that’s a little extreme.”

It’s quite an extreme mindset to have.

One wrong decision and it’s over.

But sometimes one decision is all it takes to shift all the momentum you had going for you in the wrong direction.

It’s a good mentality to have because otherwise you can risk losing a ton of momentum and experiencing a costly dip in productivity.

Look at it this way.

You spent your entire week racking up little victories, building up momentum, stringing together a chain of small successes… until there’s a kink in one of the links.

The chain breaks. You’re out of commission.

So you might as well be extreme about it and have that “all or nothing” attitude if it’s going to benefit you in the long run.

Closing thoughts

If you got sick it’s probably because you didn’t take the time to rest and recharge.

The reason lurking behind your downfall is pretty petty if you think about it.

You wanted more but you ended up with much less.

So if it feels like a stretch to go out again and your already running on fumes – let it go.

If your body is telling you that it needs rest – make the decision to rest.

If you don’t make that decision for your body – it will make it for you.

And if your friends or whoever try to pressure you into it think long and hard – who’s going to carry the costs of that decision later?

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Get into The Mindset Of The Future

In high school, one of the things I had to do was write a 4,000-word essay on any topic and any subject of my choosing. So much freedom of choice that it was crippling.

I chose to write in Psychology and about the “effect of violent video games on young audiences.”

I remember thinking of the whole endeavour as a daunting drudgery that I had to someway, somehow survive. In the beginning, stress and uncertainty were huge factors.

I felt lost and overwhelmed.

The funniest thing about the whole experience was that it turned out to be the most enjoyable assignment of my entire 3 years in high school.

I look upon every stage of that entire research project very fondly.

What would I have been able to unlock?

What if I had the mindset about the project that I have now (i.e. enjoyable, stimulating, insightful, an awesome learning opportunity) when I first started the assignment?

What would I have been able to unlock?

randy der via Flickr

How much better would I have been able to perform in the assignment? What else would I have been able to tap into?

At beginning of any project, things may seem daunting at first. It all might seem like an insurmountable mountain to climb.

You just envision all the work ahead of you.


And even if you get into the assignment or whatever it is that you are focusing on, it can feel like a long day at the office for countless hours or days on end.

It’s always tough. You’ll endure plateaus and times where you’re running in place and nothing is progressing. After all – The Dip is unforgiving.

But along the way you are learning little lessons. You need to learn them. If you don’t learn them, you won’t grow. You won’t level up.

These are the lessons that are gearing you up with the confidence and ability to face head on the various challenges life will undoubtedly throw your way.

And it is these little lessons that amount to a broader understanding of whatever it is that you’re working on.

A broader understanding in your field of expertise or just life in general.

It is this understanding that will carry you to the next level of progress.

So try get into the mindset of the future.

Be aware that you’re investing in yourself, in your future, or contributing to a greater cause. Always have that at the forefront of your mind when things are tough.

You’ll be better off for it.

And chances are you’ll look back fondly on this current period of hard work and drudgery some weeks, months, years down the line.

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