A Large-Scale Study of Proxemics and Gaze in Groups
Scholars who study nonverbal behavior have focused an incredible amount of work on proxemics, how close people stand to one another, and mutual gaze, whether or not they are looking at one another. Moreover, many studies have demonstrated a correlation between gaze and distance, and so-called equilibrium theory posits that people modulate gaze and distance to maintain proper levels of nonverbal intimacy. Virtual reality scholars have also focused on these two constructs, both for theoretical reasons, as distance and gaze are often used as proxies for psychological constructs such as social presence, and for methodological reasons, as head orientation and body position are automatically produced by most VR tracking systems. However, to date, the studies of distance and gaze in VR have largely been conducted in laboratory settings, observing behavior of a small number of participants for short periods of time. In this experimental field study, we analyze the proxemics and gaze of 232 participants over two experimental studies who each contributed up to about 240 minutes of tracking data during eight weekly 30-minute social virtual reality sessions. Participants’ non-verbal behaviors changed in conjunction with context manipulations and over time. Interpersonal distance increased with the size of the virtual room; and both mutual gaze and interpersonal distance increased over time. Overall, participants oriented their heads toward the center of walls rather than to corners of rectangularly aligned environments. Finally, statistical models demonstrated that individual differences matter, with pairs and groups maintaining more consistent differences over time than would be predicted by chance. Implications for theory and practice are discussed.