A Moment of Science

Farewell to Arms

Fly often? If you do, who gets the arm rest? You? Or your neighbor?

Good afternoon, this is your captain speaking. We are at cruising altitude and will be in flight for another three hours, so you’d better get comfortable.

That means figuring out who gets the arm rest — you, or your neighbor in the next seat. Oh, I know the seats are built so that one arm rest is shared by two passengers. Sure, we could have given all the seats their own arm rests, but then airplane flights would be so much less interesting from a social psychology point of view. And hey — you don’t really mind, do you?

Turns out you do. In a study conducted by three social psychologists, 426 pairs of people were observed on some twenty flights to see if there is a pattern to who gets the disputed armrest. The subjects observed were always one male seated next to one female. Guess who got the armrest most of the time?

Yep, the men. Twice as often? Three times? Try five times as often. Men dominated the social space that didn’t clearly belong to either person. Adjusting the experiment to only include people of equal size, that number dropped. But the men still took the arm rest three times as often as the women.

In post-flight interviews, 68 percent of the men said they were bothered when the other person took the armrest, while only 42 percent of the women felt annoyed. Men under forty reported the strongest irritation.

So…are all men just pushy cads? Well, one can debate what these data show. But this much is clear: that little strip of plastic is a mini-battleground.

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