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Knee-Defender incident points to behavioral sink in the sky

Personal space matters.

Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported the diverting of a United Airlines flight for that very reason (1). A male passenger (reportedly) needing space to work using his laptop, resorted to a device called a “Knee-Defender” to prevent the passenger in front of him from reclining her seat.

Also according to the AP as reported by NPR, the male passenger refused the flight attendant’s request to remove the device – after which he became the target of a glass of water thrown by the female passenger who had wanted to recline.

The result: Flight diverted.

Attitudes at altitudes
Now, we can understand both sides of this story – well, at least before it resulted in conflict. Flights are boring. You can sleep, or work... or maybe watch a movie; but it's just no fun being there and flying economy class. For the business traveler, the implications can be serious and quite stressful: Loss of productive time during flight can make a long work day even longer once on the ground.

However… just as interesting as the story, itself, is the observation that “Knee-Defender” topped Google searches the day the story was reported – right up there with “National Dog Day” (2). Maybe, searchers were wanting to know (as I did) how exactly the Knee-Defender works. (Apparently, it locks onto the tray somehow).

Why ‘Knee-Defender’ resonates
But I suspect it was more than that… This is a story that resonates because it’s about personal space as an issue that’s always on our minds but rarely gets called out.

Going back to the Knee-Defender incident and bringing in the eloquent writing of anthropologist Edward T. Hall, it’s fairly suspect that today’s air travel is creating “behavioral sinks” (3).

A “behavioral sink,” is “the outcome of any behavioral process that collects animals together in unusually great numbers.” Hall writes that the concept originated with John Calhoun, a population dynamics researcher who studied colonies of domesticated rats in the late 1940s. Hall recounts this work in his anthropological classic The Hidden Dimension, which is an easy and delightful read that uses ordinary language to present scholarly concepts.

Calhoun found that the sizes of rat populations maintained themselves at a certain level without intervention – and that an artificially induced population density beyond the maximum acceptable induced physiological effects of stress. Seen previously in wild-deer over-populations, those fatal effects were quantified by adrenal examination.

Many variables entered into what happened and why, but the individual’s biologic need for a minimum amount of personal space was the central factor in the mix. Without sufficient space and control, detrimental physiological changes ensued, resulting in individual mortality, particularly for the most vulnerable (old, young and pregnant).

Extrapolating to humans
It’s always a leap to extrapolate this sort of animal research to humans, but the issue bears a look, nonetheless – and air travel creates circumstances worth examining more closely. Passenger space has continued to decrease over the years, and it may become even more cramped. In fact, Airbus, according to a recent report by CNN, has filed for a patent on saddle seats, which are nearly vertical seats that would eliminate laps (… and presumably work done on laptops) (4). Supposedly, the proposed design would fit four passengers into space currently required for three.

While now-and-then fliers may have the opportunity to recover from the effects of an occasional cramped flight, what about passengers who are required to fly frequently for their work? Do they experience the adrenal changes seen in confined animals? What about office workers crammed into tiny cubicles for 8+ hours – or classrooms full of more students than one teacher can manage? What about population-dense urban area with scarce vital resources?

These scenarios suggest outcomes with societal-level relevance – and organizational-responsibility. They also support arguments for considering outcomes from psychology, sociology and anthropology when organizations, including governments, make decisions that will impact large populations.

As the Knee-Defender story illustrates, today’s sink may be tomorrow’s stink.

1. NPR. (2014). Flight diverted when passengers feud over reclining seat. (accessed: August 2014).

2. Trendilla (2014). Trendilla for Wednesday, August 27, 2014.

3. Hall, ET. (1966, 1982). The Hidden Dimension. New York: Doubleday.

4. CNN. (2014). Airbus files patent for saddle seats on planes. (accessed: August 2014)

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