The Sidewalk Dance

The Sidewalk Dance

Do you avoid people and obstacles differently than others?

Every day, people avoid each other and obstacles in order to navigate the world. The visual system is the only sensory system that provides information about the environment at a distance, which makes it important for staying safe. People use visual information when deciding where to move and when to do it. These options change for each person depending on their abilities and their size; for instance, a bigger person needs more room to move (Gibson, 1979). When avoiding obstacles, we keep a protective zone around ourselves (Gerin Lajoie et al., 2008). This personal space is bigger when avoiding another person as compared to avoiding an object (Knowles et al., 1976).

Lana wanted to know how personal characteristics affect the way someone avoids obstacles. Her study looked at how people avoid a person walking towards them and if personal characteristics (like sex, size, and sports training) change their actions. In this study, participants were asked to avoid a female research assistant (e.g., the confederate) who walked towards them on a pathway. Thirty young adult males and females (female rugby players and non-rugby players) participated.

The Sidewalk Dance

It was found that men avoided the confederate earlier than women. Conversely, female rugby players avoided the confederate later than female non-athletes. These findings suggest individual characteristics affect how people avoid obstacles. It is possible that athletes avoided later because they were more confident in their action capabilities or have a smaller personal space than non-athletes. Another idea is that they avoid later because they have been trained to hide their intentions (e.g., their future movements) from a potential opponent. Sex also impacts obstacle avoidance. Males avoided earlier to keep a bigger space between themselves and the female obstacle. They might do so to accommodate for their bigger size.

Everyone avoids obstacles differently. Personal characteristics, like sex and sport-specific training, may impact these behaviours. Want to avoid that awkward dance on the sidewalk when trying to decide in which direction to avoid another person? Watch where you’re going and avoid early!


Gérin-Lajoie, M., Richards, C. L., Fung, J., & McFadyen, B. J. (2008). Characteristics of personal space during obstacle circumvention in physical and virtual environments. Gait and Posture, 27(2), 239–247.

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Compant.

Knowles, E. S., Kreuser, B., Haas, S., Hyde, M., & Schuchart, G. E. (1976). Group size and the extension of social space boundaries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33(5), 647–654.