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The Psychology of Personal Space: Seat Reclining

The Psychology of Personal Space: Seat Reclining

Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard more and more accounts of airline flights being diverted because of an argument over reclining seats. Reclining seats are obviously not the problem — they’ve been available on most airlines’ flights for the past five decades.

The problem is that as airlines seek to eek out every dollar of profit from your pocket, many have decided to reduce the space between seats, making your personal space up to an inch smaller than it was just a year or two ago. The person in front of you trying to recline their seat isn’t to blame — the airline you’ve chosen to purchase a ticket from is.

But all of this really a battle over personal space. And no battle may be more emotionally involving than this one.

Personal space is the physical space around you, and how much its infringed upon impacts your sense of comfort, anxiety and safety. In the United States, we like to keep about 2 to 4 feet between us and others when having a conversation. Anything closer than 2 feet can either feel anxiety-provoking or intimate, depending upon its context.

Airlines make their profits by packing as many people (and their accompanying luggage as well as miscellaneous cargo like U.S. postal service mail) onto each flight as possible. A decade ago, they were quite happy with filling 74 percent of their seats, and made a tidy profit doing so.

This year, airlines expect to have flights at 84 percent of capacity — meaning more profits and less space for its customers. At the same time, many airlines like United, Delta, American and Southwest have reduced the space in-between each row of seats, decreasing passenger comfort.

And most importantly — infringing even further into our personal space.

I don’t think airlines gave these decisions much thought, especially when it comes to the psychology of personal space and the unintended consequences of reducing in-flight space for its customers even further.1 Instead, they figure the only way they can squeak out even more profits from their companies — on top of all the additional add-on fees they already figured out how to charge us — is to make their customers even more uncomfortable.

We now are beginning to see the result of these kinds of decisions. Airlines’ passengers are becoming increasingly unruly, aggressive and angry. But not toward the people responsible for their lack of comfort and space — the airlines. Instead, they’re taking out their aggression out on one another.

Why Personal Space is So Emotional

When people get physically closer, one emotion usually kicks in — anxiety. We start to feel anxious and for those especially prone to it, more claustrophobic. When the situation is one of intimacy, that anxiety quickly dissipates and is replaced by feelings of intimacy and sexual heat.

But when that situation is one populated by strangers, that anxiety has its roots in our basic fight-or-flight response. Why is this person approaching us so closely? Are they angling for a fight? If so, my body has to prepare for it and either fight in response to this perceived thread, or flee.2 This ancient psychological response to stress in humans is called the fight or flight response.

On an airplane, we feel particularly vulnerable and helpless. We can’t make the plane go faster to get us to our destination. We have little choice of the kind of seat we’ll get (unless we have the economic flexibility to choose a more-space seat, whether in coach, business or first class).

We have even less choice about the kind of people who will surround us during our flight. Will they be kind and considerate? Or will it be a child kicking the back of our seats for the entire flight, with parents who seemed to have checked out from basic parenting during the flight? Or will it be the kind of person who, 10 seconds into the flight, slams his or her seat into our knees with a full-on recline?

All of these variables are out of our control. And that loss of control hits us — some harder than others. We resent this lack of choice and having many of our freedoms (temporarily) restricted.3

There’s one last thing to add to the mix. Travel for many people is both emotionally and physically draining. Many airlines have variable air quality, and you share this enclosed space with some people who are fighting sickness. Add to that early morning or late night flights, long security lines, and the stress of flying in general, and you can begin to understand how people are generally not at their best when they travel.

Combine our innate fight-or-flight response in an enclosed, cramped space for an extended period of time, with many things taken out of our control, and you can begin to understand how this fight for personal space is now taking shape in the form of the humble ability to recline your seat.

What You Can Do to Help

Reclining seats are unlikely to go away anytime soon. So what can all of us do to help with this situation?

1. Tell your airline you’re unhappy with their increasingly cramped quarters.

Let the airlines that you regularly fly know how you feel about them putting profit ahead of their customers’ comfort. We’re not all millionaires and can’t all afford that exit-row seat, much less first-class. The more they hear from irate customers — even in the form of voting with your dollars — the more they may begin to pay attention to putting your needs first.

2. Let’s remember our manners from grade school.

A little consideration and good manners goes a long way. Let the person behind you know you’re about to recline your seat (if you feel comfortable doing this). In any case, recline your seat slowly, and try not to recline all the way back unless you have a physical, medical need to do so (or it’s a particularly long flight where most people will be sleeping).

Be quick to apologize if something goes wrong (like the seat reclines back quickly when you had intended it go back slowly). Being kind to one another starts with our own kindness to strangers, and remembering that accidents do happen. It helps by not always assuming the worst about other people’s intentions if something bad happens.

3. You don’t have to recline.

If it’s not a long flight, consider not reclining your seat at all. I can’t tell you how many flights I’ve been on where everyone in my row hasn’t moved their seat an inch. That’s great if you feel comfortable with that, and a choice you can freely make.

4. Don’t engage with the rude or inconsiderate.

If you have trouble winning an argument with your loved one, what chances do you have “winning” anything from a stranger who’s being inconsiderate or rude? Chances are, very little. Instead, what you’ll likely end up doing is escalating the situation and making everyone feel even more uncomfortable and unhappy.

After you’ve had your say, let it go. Arguing further will only increase the chances the plane will be diverted — successfully ruining everyone’s travel plans.

Reclining your seat is your right as a customer on an airline that offers reclining seats. However, that doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk about it. Respect the person behind you (pretend they’re a family member or friend you care very much about), and using that right in a mindful and thoughtful way. Remember, we’re all suffering these days with less space on-board the airlines, so let’s make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.

The Psychology of Personal Space: Seat Reclining


  1. I can honestly say I’ve never heard a customer on any of these airlines complain of having too much space on their domestic flights… so maybe they took that as, “Hey, since they seem not to mind, let’s taken even more space away from them!” []
  2. Different cultures handle this closeness in different ways, too. So this article largely pertains to Americans and those in Western Europe. []
  3. Airlines add insult to injury by removing even more of what little personal space we have left in a hunt for even greater profits. []

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). The Psychology of Personal Space: Seat Reclining. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 3 Sep 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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