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The Effect of Visible Facial Difference on Personal Space During Encounters With the General Public

Roberts, R. M. PhD; Gierasch, A. MPsych (Health)

doi: 10.1097/PSN.0b013e31828f04ef

Previous research has found that people with visible differences are granted more physical space than people without visible differences during encounters with the general public. This study aimed to examine whether given significant sociocultural changes, this remains the case in contemporary Australia. The personal space afforded to a person with a visible difference (with a temporary difference—a scar and a permanent difference—a strawberry hemangioma) or a person without a visible difference by 408 pedestrians on a busy pedestrian walkway in the central business district of Adelaide, Australia, was measured. This was a replication and extension of a study by N. Rumsey, R. Bull, and D. Gahagan (1982). Pedestrians stood no further away from the model in the visibly different conditions than in the nonvisibly different conditions. Pedestrians stood an average of 128 cm away in the control condition, 120 cm away in the scar condition, and 140 cm away in the birthmark condition. People did not stand to the nonvisibly different (left) side of the model more frequently in the visibly different conditions than in the nonvisibly different conditions. As the original research by N. Rumsey et al. is frequently cited as representing the current situation for people with visible differences, failing to replicate the result is significant. Changes may be due to either recent sociocultural changes promoting inclusion of disability or increasing social taboo against expressing overt prejudice.

R. M. Roberts, PhD, is currently an academic at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, and has previously provided psychosocial care to children with craniofacial conditions who were patients of the Australian Craniofacial Unit.

A. Gierasch, MPsych (Health), is a practicing psychologist with an interest in the experiences of people with health conditions, including conditions that affect appearance such as craniofacial conditions.

Address correspondence to R. M. Roberts, PhD, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Adelaide, North Tce, Adelaide, 5005, Australia (e-mail:

The authors report no conflicts of interest.

Copyright © 2013 by American Society of Plastic Surgical Nurses