9 March 2005
The Impact of Social Norms on Seat Selection at Movie Theaters. Where is the perfect seat? Is it near the front so that the screen fills your visual field? Is it in the back so that in the dark the screen is at a natural height for the eyes? Or is it in the center of the movie theater where the speakers are at the perfect distance to optimize the sound? Only the very first person to enter an empty theater has the opportunity to make a seating decision based solely on visual and sound preferences. Every person entering the theater thereafter is subject not only to their own theater experience preferences but more importantly by the seating selections of all the people already seated. There are many norms for attending a movie theater. These include explicit norms, norms that have been openly written or spoken (Straker, 1) and implicit norms, norms that are understood but not precisely recorded (Kornblum, 59). Explicit or formal norms have clear rules for punishment. Creating a disruption during the movie is grounds for ejection from the theater. Most theaters openly state during the previews that cell phones need to be turned off and that talking should be kept to a minimum. Implicit or informal norms regulate seat selection in a theater where at least one person is already present and seated. These informal norms are strengthened by the anticipation of a crowd. The anticipation of a crowd has been shown to encourage more socially isolated seating choices and an increase in the avoidance of contact with others (Greenberg, 672). As additional people enter the theater, their seating choices are no longer based on the anticipation of a crowd but on the reality of the remaining availability of seats. The dwindling number of empty seats forces the choice of seats that are closer to other people. For example, the first person1 entering the theater chooses the seat they consider perfect, the center seat in the center row. The second person enters, surveys the locations of any other patrons in the theater and picks a seat using a loosely formed set of informal norms or rules. All subsequent people repeat these steps taking into account the locations of each of the seats filled. The unstated rules are either more or less strictly interpreted based on the percentage of the theater capacity filled. The second and third people entering the theater are expected to interpret the rules strictly, thus anticipating a crowd in the theater. As the theater fills, the interpretation weakens. Most of the norms are related to the amount of personal space around each person in the theater. In American society intimate space is defined as 0-18 inches, personal space 1.5 to 4 feet, and social space 4 to 10 feet.(Brown) These distances serve as a basis for the social norms used to select seating. In an attempt to explain the decisions related to seat selection in a movie theater, I propose the following as the implicit norms observed by American movie theater patrons; 1) do not obstruct anyone else’s view of the screen, 2) do not sit directly in front of another person, 3) do not sit directly behind another person, and 4) do not sit in the seat adjacent to another person.. The second and third people entering strictly interpret the norms by choosing seats in entirely different sections; i.e. the first person chose center row, center seat; the second person will choose the right front section, and the third person will chose the left section closer to the rear. These seats were chosen as a way of avoiding contact with those already seated and creating the greatest amount of social isolation possible. As the theater fills, the implicit rules are interpreted less strictly. Eventually the amount of social isolation is decreased to the point where the norms are actually broken. High attendance on opening night at many popular movies will cause all of the implicit norms to...
Cited: Brown, Nina. “Edward T. Hall: Proxemic Theory, 1966.” Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science. 2005. University of California, Santa Barbara. 27 Feb 2005 .
Greenberg, Baum A. “Waiting for a Crowd: the Behavioral and Perceptual Effects of Anticipated Crowding.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32 (1975): 671-9.
Kornblum, William. “The Meaning of Culture.” Sociology in a Changing World. Ed. Jay Whitney. Canada: Thomson Learning Inc., 2004. 51-63.
Straker, David. “Social Norms.” Changing Minds.org. 2004. 27 Feb. 2005 .
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