Monday, April 07, 2008

Can You "SIT" Through This?

I was half listening to the lecture, half lost in my thoughts during the 8 AM class this morning. This isn’t unusual, since the prospect of sitting through a 90 minute class straight is totally unacceptable to me. The seating arrangement was in the form of a long rectangle with one of its short sides chopped off for the instructor to stand, while I sat closest to him. I was bored to death, feigning interest, though my mind had wandered off to the different theories I come up with. Today, I didn’t come up with a unique hypothesis, but certainly an interesting research question.

What makes people decide to sit where they choose to sit?

If there was a huge hall full of empty chairs such that the number of chairs was greater than the number of people in the room, and if each person was free to independently decide his coordinates, what would cause a particular person to choose where he chooses to sit?

I myself have attended classes of different sizes and seating arrangements. There is this standard arrangement where the teacher is at one end of the room and there are rows of seats in front, so that if you were sleepy or bored, you could always choose the last row for a short nap. And then there was this class I was sitting in where three sides of the room has seating arrangements, the fourth side for the instructor, while the rest of the room was a long strip of empty floor space good enough for a cricket pitch. And then there were rooms more like stadiums and cinema halls where you climbed up and down the stairs to have the seat of your choice.

Keeping all the classroom seating designs in mind, what induces people to opt for certain seats? If it is a small class and you needed a recommendation letter from the professor at the end of the semester, you perhaps chose to sit in the front row, left, right, or center. Even if the course didn’t interest you, you pretended as if it was the second best thing that happened to you after that apple fell on Newton’s head and gave you several extra chapters and formula to learn from the physics text book. If you didn’t care about the recommendation letter, you probably chose to sit in some dimly lit corner of the room, trying to remain as unobtrusive as possible. If it was a huge class with a gallery seating arrangement, you would probably choose to sit at the end in order to see the teacher better, precisely the reason why balcony seats in the cinema hall are more expensive than the rear stall ones. If you have the habit of dangling your legs to ensure proper blood flow to the hind limbs, the first bench is never a good idea. If you had a large ass, the side seats may not be a good idea (God, why am I reminded of someone called Eric Cartman… aaayyeeee !). 

Having said that, if you had a large classroom and observed where people sat in each class, I wonder what the results would look like. Some would always sit in the front while some would always sit at the back. Some would always alternate, left, right, center, front, back, doesn’t matter. Some would not care about the coordinates as much as they would care for their friends. Some would always be proximal to a certain group of people while some would always be at the maximum possible distance from a certain group of people. Some would be undecided and take the first available seat. Some would avoid being close to the other professors in the room who have come to attend the seminar, while some would make it a point to always sit closest to their adviser. Students with love interests are expected to sit close to each other. Students who take lots of notes will usually choose that empty corner to get that extra space, and definitely the front one to see and hear properly. People who wanted some extra attention will usually sit in the front while people like me who couldn’t care less would try to find some godforsaken corner. If it is a class of hundreds, one would prefer to be as close to the EXIT sign as possible. Some people have a favorite seat, a favorite nook or corner where they sit class after class, year after year. They squirm and get uncomfortable if they find someone else sitting in their favorite place (If it is a man called Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, he will make sure his favorite seat is vacated before the class can even start). Some people are like extra-terrestrial bodies that wander, though not aimlessly, but with a formula not yet known to physicists. If you had a bird eye view of a square classroom, I usually prefer to sit in the geometrical center. It gives me a sense of symmetry, the walls being equidistant from my left, right, and frontal vision.

If there was a study for a year (the class being unaware of it) where some crazy theory proponent like me observed and recorded peoples preferences for seats, would there emerge a specific pattern out of it? If the sample size was large enough, would the result fall safely within a confidence interval? Will the seating pattern be in clusters, scattered, linearly, or otherwise? Would there be confounders and effect modifiers? Who knows how it works. Probably when you enter a large room, a fluorescent lighted signal leaves your brain to your muscles directing where it should move, unless there are certain determining factors like friends, state of interest or boredom, etc., that predetermines a location. If we were to develop a conceptual model on seating, what factors would be involved? Neurocognition? Motor coordination? Evolutionary stable strategy? Social learned behavior? Purely instinct and/or reflex? Networking intentions? A combination of physiological and social factors? I myself have attended a class with a handsome doctor in it when I would come late and strategically position myself so as to be able to see him the best, yet be as unobtrusive as possible. Yeah, even budding scientists have hormones.

I applaud your patience if you are still reading this. After all, it is an age old rant of scientists that people do not understand or appreciate their concepts and ideas. You see, an idea, a random thought is all that it takes, and though the theories you hypothesize may not earn you Nobel prizes, it can certainly transport you to wonderland and see you through 8 AM classes or concepts otherwise considered boring.



CM-Chap said...

Successfully I read the whole.... Its really a research material... How ppl choose the seats.

Long back I rem, readg somewhere.. its a an reflection of current state of mind & also influenced by our own personality.

kevin said...

I did read it completely but just because I am a fan of your posts n have been a follower since almost a year.

The topic was interesting, as usual. But the way u wrote it was totally unlike you !!! But I guess I should not complain. One boring post in a year is acceptable :)

Keep posting....

Edgar Dantas said...

hey nice blog really nice one i really enjoyed goin through it really nice post
with regards
edgar dantas

Tanmay said...

some additional factors could be like:whether a student has done his or her homework; if not sitting at the back makes sense so that you can use the class to cog!, also backbenchers manage to grab a bite sometimes. in serious times, i used to prefer the second row so that, i am still in the view, but if the prof starts calling the students to the board for some reason, then probabilistically i am not the first one to be butchered. sometimes window seats are best where you can watch the green parrots merge with the leaves, feel a whiff of fresh air. also if it is exam time, and i am well prepared i like to take the first row.

Red Phoenix said...

Whew! long post. I survived. In 1996 an MIT communications graduate gave his dissertation on 'Where to sit for the optimal best experience in a movie hall' U can do the same and get a PhD in seating arrangements. It's a big class of management skill when it comes to parties and wedding arrangements. So in short your thought though not to the Nobel laureate level, is really recognized. Good use of ur mind even while ur dozzing off.
I prefer the Exit seat or the one close to the window (so that I can drool over pretty girls walking by).
Finally I find u, the only other sole person in the world (Desi) to love what Sheldon does... His concept of seating on his couch was mind boggling. I love that guy....
Guess I've given an equally long comment :D

maxdavinci said...

In descending order of preference

Front row (center)
First few rows (corners)
Window seats
Exit rows (Incase of halls with multiple exits)
Last row

The best seat in the class is if the last row a window or an exit...

No prizes for guessin where I always sat(it also resulted in a few fist fights)

Grafxgurl said...

i was a back seater in school..and was a huge nuisance!

in college however i sat in front . Mostly because i was the shortest and couldnt see through all the giraffes you have here in the West!

sunshine said...

cm-chap- I completely agree with you. It does reflect a state of the mind.

kevin- I am sorry you did not like it. Hope the future posts are to your liking.

edgar- thank you :)

tanmay- wohooo that's quite a list, and some very interesting perspectives.

red phoenix- wow, that was quite insightful. And I find Sheldon absolutely adorable, no matter what he does.

maxdavinci- hehe

grafxgurl- Hey, I used to be a back bencher usually so that I could eat while the classes were going on, not 'coz I used to be hung;ry, but 'coz it seemed great fun :)