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Environmental Territoriality and Me

“Hey, that’s my spot!”

If you’ve ever watched an episode of the popular TV series “The Big Bang Theory,” you probably know that Sheldon’s character has a ‘spot.’ For him, one end of the couch “is close enough to the radiator to remain warm and yet not so close as to cause perspiration,” and “faces the television at an angle that is neither direct, thus discouraging conversation, nor so far wide as to create a parallax distortion.” When one of his friends sits in his spot, Sheldon overreacts and demands that the person move immediately: “Hey, that’s my spot.”

Sure, Sheldon is territorial to the extreme. But maybe we all have a spot (and dislike when it’s taken). For me, the cozy round table at my local coffee shop comes to mind. I perceive it as mine to the degree that I become disappointed if someone else is occupying it when I arrive to study. I find I don’t concentrate on my work for as long, or feel as comfortable, as I would in my ‘spot.’

So, what’s the environmental psychology behind these possessive feelings over places? How can my productivity and mood be so affected by the availability of a particular location? The answer: Territoriality. Environmental psychologists have been studying territoriality for some time (hence my use of some older sources in the upcoming paraphraphs). Generally, feeling territorial over a place or thing comes about because of attitudes and behaviors based on control and perceived or actual ownership (see Gifford, 2007, p. 166).

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More specifically, territoriality involves (a) physical space, (b) possession, (c) defense, (d) exclusiveness of use, (e) markers, (f) personalization and, (g) identity (Edney, 1974). These aspects are clear in Sheldon’s feelings for his spot in that the couch occupies a physical space; Sheldon has possession of it, and perceives it is a defensible position. He also has exclusiveness of use and, in some ways, links his identity to his spot. In my case, when I arrive at the coffee shop, I make sure to 'mark' my place by putting my hat on the table or leaving my coat on the chair. These actions make my territorial intentions clear to others while I am in line ordering coffee. It could be argued, as Knapp (1978) does, that such behavior is also a form of preventative defense. By leaving my belongings on the table, I am anticipating infringement and acting to stop it before it occurs. Because “hey, that’s my spot!”

Admit it. You do it, too.

Of course there is a clear difference between my spot and Sheldon’s. According to the Altman System (1975), Sheldon’s preferred seat on the couch is a "primary territory." He owns his couch and uses it at his convenience. Whereas, my spot in the coffee shop is a "public territory" where I have no actual ownership of, or claim on, any table, let alone by favorite one. It is available to anyone (hence my anxiety when I come to find someone sitting there!). This brings me to another element of territoriality: Infringement.

Psychologists have put forward different types of territory infringement ranging from complete invasion (when full control of a place is taken away from the owner) to moderate violation (a temporary overtaking of a territory in order to cause annoyance but not gain ownership) to mere contamination (when a territory is in some way harmed or fouled; see Lyman & Scott, 1967). And, before you ask, I don’t think my coffee shop spot is at risk of invasion. It is unlikely that a person will overtake a table and two chairs in the public domain and allow no other to occupy them. But Sheldon certainly views anyone temporarily sitting on his couch cushion as a serious violation of territory. And who can forget the episode where two of Sheldon’s friends accidently get paint on his spot, effectively contaminating it. Oh dear.

So, next time you’re in your local coffee shop or a friend’s living room, try unobtrusively observing how others behave with respect to territoriality. Then reflect on how you feel about a particular ‘spot’ and what you do to protect it. Perhaps you feel you don’t have a territory and move freely in the world, without thinking, “hey, that’s my spot.” Or, like me, you're more like Sheldon than you think.

References

Altman, I. (1975). The environment and social behavior: Privacy, personal space, territoriality and crowding. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Edney, J. J. (1974). Human territoriality. Psychological Bulletin, 81, 959-975.

Gifford, R. (2007). Environmental Psychology: Principles and Practice. Victoria, BC: Optimal Books.

Knapp, M. L. (1978). Nonverbal communication in human interaction. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Lyman, S. M., & Scott, M. B. (1967). Territoriality: A neglected sociological dimension. Social Problems, 15, 235-249.

Lindsay J. McCunn, MSc is a Ph.D. candidate in environmental psychology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

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