Movie Seat Choice: Psychology, Research, and My Own Observations

On countless occasions I and my movie-going companion(s) have remarked about movie seat choice as people file in around us and plunk themselves down in ways mysterious and puzzling—e.g., in our way or too unnecessarily close.

I wondered if there was any research in this area, and a summary of what I found follows. (Click on the links for the sources.) I’ve also developed my own theories.

I. Psychologist Donna Dawson (2001)

Dawson found four different personality types based on which movie seat they chose:

  1. On the aisle–Detached Observers
  2. Front row–Film Fanatics who are “extroverted, assertive and competitive”
  3. The middle–Middle-of-the-Roaders are “flexible and try to get along with others”
  4. Far in the back–Invisible Rebels who “like excitement” but not in the limelight

Another category, Dawson acknowledges, could be given for those who go wherever there happens to be a seat available: “sometimes a chair is just a chair.”

II. “Laterality and Seat Choice” (2009)

Matia Okubo’s study found that right-handers tend to sit on the right side of the theater “but only when they are motivated to watch the film.” This is supposed to indicate something about right-brain, left-brain stuff.

III. Melissa Locker, “Down in Front! Where Do You Sit in Movie Theaters?” (2011)

Not so much a study, but a few observations. Melissa Locker starts off with the fact that film critic Roger Ebert had, merely for practical reasons, changed his seating habits at some point later in life. For better ease of reaching the rest room, he’d begun to sit in the back.

But other critics, she notes, often choose the front row, also for practical reasons, e.g., no heads in front of you, less latecomer disturbance, more leg room, greater ease of sneaking out without bothering others in the row.

For non-critics there may be different criteria. The back of the theater, for example, is good for making out. The front can be great for “shorties” such as Locker, who also likes the nearness of the action on screen.

IV. My Own Study (2013)

As the above reports didn’t quite cut it for me, I set out to compile my own researchfunded and wanted by no one.

Setting: an empty theater, close to show time. We’re on the right side on the aisle, which is closest to the entrance and thus enables me better observation of incoming traffic. It also favors my left brain, which is highly scientific of me likely immaterial.

My results found several different types of movie-watching seat-pickers:

The Middlers. This couple heads right to the middle of the row that’s smack-dab in the middle of the theater. It could be that they’re centered people or that they believe they’re the center of the universe or that they’re just middle-of-the-road types. Whatever. It’s fine because they’re away from us.

We’re Young, We’re Trouble, We Can See from the Back. Several young people go to the middle of a row toward the back. They want to distance themselves from anyone older likely to reprimand them for upcoming bad behavior.

Please Don’t Leave Me. An adult group comes in, looks around and sees all the empty seats, but WTF! unbelievably parks right next to the Middlers. They’re the sort who are socially insecure, dependent, and have abandonment issues more comfy being in the company of others.

We’re Older, Not Dumber. An elderly group slowly makes their way to the front row of the second and largest of two seating sections and sits on the aisle. There’s a wide walkway between their row and the smaller section ahead. Highly practical. They can see and hear better here, be closer to the rest room, and not have to deal with newcomers stepping over them to get to middle seats. I make a note to copy this behavior someday too soon. Next time.

We’re Supposed to Sit Here. As is usually the case, taller people come and, without hesitation, sit directly in front of my partner, vertically challenged that she is. These mean, conniving people can have no justifiable reason to do this long ago became used to sitting in front of others because their names are nearer the beginning of the alphabet. Their development is forever stunted.

We’re Old, We’re Loud, Get Used to It. Next is another group of insensitive seniors who sits right behind us. They clearly hadn’t gotten the memo the other elder group had sent out. It only takes one or two LOUDLY SPOKEN SENTENCES to realize we’re now stuck not only with low visuals to the front of us but also generally impaired auditory.

It’s at this point that my study ends, as we decide to relocate to the rear of that first little front section, regrettably almost on top of the gigantic screen. But the good news is that all the inappropriate-seat-choosers are now safely behind us. No one sits in front of us. Would you?

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