She's in Finland now, getting her Ph.D. at the University of Jyvaskyla, but before that, when she was in Adelaide, Australia, she studied elevator behavior. Rebekah Rousi hung around two tall office towers in town, riding elevators up and down day after day, looking for patterns. When a bunch of people get into an elevator, she wondered, do they segregate in any predictable way? Do tall ones stand in the back? Do men stand in different places than women? Who looks where? She says she wasn't expecting or even predicting a particular configuration, but she found one.
Over and over, she noticed that older "more senior men in particular seem to direct themselves towards the back of the elevator cabins."
Younger men took up the middle ground.
And in the front, facing the doors, backs to the guys, stood "women of all ages."
She's not sure why. It wasn't segregation by height. It wasn't age, since older and younger women co-mingled. Clearly, the people in the back had the advantage of seeing everybody in the cabin, while people in the front had no idea who was behind them. Could there be a curiosity difference? A predatory difference?
There was a second pattern, one that broke along gender lines. "Men," she wrote, "looked in the side mirrors and the door mirrors" to openly check out the other passengers, and/or themselves.
Women didn't do that. "Women would watch the monitors and avoid eye contact with other users (unless in conversation)." They would only look at the mirrors (where they could check out the other passengers) when they were with other women. Eye-wise, the guys were roving, the ladies weren't.
"That's where I started thinking of power," Rebekah wrote me. The men who flocked to the back, who had a better view of their fellow passengers, were consistently older, more "senior" (I'm not sure how she knew that, but it's in her posted paper) and many of them "weren't concerned with 'getting caught' looking in the mirror." They gazed freely, suggesting a sense of privilege. Younger, less powerful men seemed to avoid that space, choosing a middle ground. The back of the box, (unlike the back of the bus in Alabama civil rights days) she decided, might be the elevator power zone.
Perhaps a gender analysis is too easy. Power hierarchies in elevators, she wrote, "almost seemed too cliché." This could be about shyness. Bold people choose the back; shy people the front. Does that mean she thinks Australian women are more self-conscious than Australian men? She wouldn't go there, except to say, "I don't really want people to know how vain I am, so looking in the mirror (as a woman or not) when others are in the lift ... is highly avoided." By this analysis, the back of the elevator is the Vanity-Unleashed zone.
Basically, she's still puzzled. A pattern shows up. But the explanation, she said, slipping into academic shyness, "awaits further analysis." Then she added, "I'd be really interested to hear what your listeners (she means you, you reading this) have to say about the issue."
The always mischievous Latif Nasser (who is, I should mention, a regular contributor to Radiolab) read this post and sent me a video that describes a very different kind of elevator behavior. What happens if you step inside and everybody around you is doing something odd? Do you do it too?