Perception of interpersonal distance and social distancing before and during COVID-19 pandemic

Nur Givon-Benjio, Hili Sokolover, Idan M. Aderka, Bat Sheva Hadad, Hadas Okon-Singer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Since COVID-19 is easily transmitted among people in close physical proximity, the focus of epidemiological policy during the COVID-19 crisis included major restrictions on interpersonal distance. However, the way in which distance restrictions affected spatial perception is unclear. In the current study, we examined interpersonal distance preferences and perceptions at three time points: pre-pandemic, early post-pandemic, and late post-pandemic. The results indicate that following the pandemic outbreak, people perceived others as farther away than they actually were, suggesting that the distance restrictions were associated with an enlargement of perceived interpersonal distance. Interestingly, however, people maintained the same distance from one another as before the outbreak, indicating no change in actual distance behavior due to the risk of infection. These findings suggest that COVID-19 was associated with a change in the way distance is perceived, while in practice, people maintain the same distance as before. In contrast, COVID-related anxiety predicted both a preference for maintaining a greater distance and a bias toward underestimating perceived distance from others. Thus, individuals who were highly fearful of COVID-19 perceived other people to be closer than they actually were and preferred to maintain a larger distance from them. The results suggest that subjective risk can lead to an increased perception of danger and a subsequent change in behavior. Taken together, even when behaviors should logically change, the decision-making process can be based on distorted perceptions. This insight may be used to predict public compliance.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number4568
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - 25 Feb 2024


  • COVID-19
  • Distance perception
  • Distance preference
  • Interpersonal distance

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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