Diffusion in the elevator

The other day in the hospital elevator I was reminded of the process of diffusion from my high school science days. (Diffusion is the process by which molecules spread out to fill a space for those of you who might not remember that far back.) Diffusion happens all the time in elevators. If the elevator is full, people are resigned to be closely packed. But as soon as the elevator begins to empty, there is a natural tendency to spread out evenly, like molecules, to ensure maximum space. We don’t even think about it. Diffusion is one of the unwritten rules of elevator etiquette. Others include: facing the front, speaking quietly and not making eye contact. Why do we behave the way we do? I went in search of more information about elevator behaviour.


According to Dario Maestripier from the Wired Science article “Why the Elevator Floor Is So Interesting” our elevator behaviour is not necessarily rational, but an instinctive response based on our genetic history. Imagine two Paleolithic cavemen who follow the tracks of a large bear into the same small, dark cave. There is no bear in there, only the other hungry caveman ominously waving his club: clearly an awkward situation that requires an exit strategy. In those Paleolithic days, murder was an acceptable way to get out of socially awkward situations, much in the way we use an early morning doctor’s appointment as an excuse to leave a dinner party early. In the cave, one of the cavemen whacks the other over the head with his club and the party is over. Our minds evolved from the minds of the cavemen, and their minds, in turn, evolved from the minds of their primate ancestors — apes that looked a lot like chimpanzees. Some of our mental abilities appeared very recently in our evolutionary history — like our ability for abstract reasoning, language, love or spirituality. But the way primate minds respond to potentially dangerous social situations hasn’t changed in millions of years.

Hmm. What would Paleothic humans have thought of the elevator? While you think about that, I will remind you that of course, for your health, you could take the stairs.

I will leave you with this little cultural gem from Candid Camera Sam

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