The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

The Home For Man and Beast

Home is the place to win

Winning at home may seem a bit like a pupil who excels at lunch. Yet, there are real advantages to the sense of confidence and security accruing to time spent at home. The underlying psychology has deep roots in evolution.

Animal territories

Animal territories are a mechanism through which valuable resources get divided up. The advantage of territoriality is that it cuts down on direct aggression that is exhausting and a possible cause of injuries that can prove fatal. Even if the individual survives the fight itself, its weakened state is an invitation to predators, not to mention the possibility of dangerous infections in even minor wounds.

During the breeding season male birds sing to announce to rivals that a particular breeding territory is occupied. Normally, such advertisement of ownership is enough to keep rivals away. If they do happen to stray into the defended space, they are likely to get chased out without delay.

This brings us to the most interesting psychological feature of territories. If an animal fights rivals, it is much more likely to win close to the center of the territory than if the encounter with the same rivals took place outside the territory. In sports, this phenomenon is referred to as the home field advantage. It is usually explained in terms of a boost in confidence enjoyed by a territory owner.

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The home as a territory

Why a blackbird might feel more confident on its territory than off is an intriguing question with several plausible explanations. To begin with, the space is familiar and familiarity breeds content for blackbirds as well as for humans. There is also the issue of a bird becoming bonded to its mate and associating that place with the partner. Moreover, the resident is likely to have won previous encounters on the territory thereby increasing its confidence in challenging rivals.

Without being too anthropomorphic, it seems that each of these factors may play a role in the calm confidence a person is more likely to feel in their own home than if they are in someone else’s. It is quite unlikely that a person will be challenged in their own home, of course but that is because other people respect the territorial prerogatives of the resident and stay out unless invited.

Many people will remember Gary Larson’s cartoon about territoriality in “the lower animals” where the human homes are stockaded by privacy fences. People are so territorial that they also divide up the interior of the home in interesting ways. Each child has a bedroom territory and adults stake their claim to a den, a basement spot, or some other place where they like to spend time.

Married couples divide their bedrooms into mini territories. Each spouse has their own closet space for clothing, their own drawers in the dresser, their own shelf space in the bathroom And don’t even think of sleeping on your spouse’s side of the bed.

Then there are the other mini territories defended within rooms. Each family member has their preferred seat at the dining table, their favorite seat in the living room and so forth.

The psychology of territories

Informal ownership of space is such a pervasive aspect of human behavior that we scarcely give it a second thought. Yet, it is meaningful. Familiar spaces that we “own” must make us feel better, or we would hardly bother to assert our primacy there.

Territory means confidence and confidence builds status. That is why executives and other professionals give themselves quiet offices where they are perceived as the territory owner. Conversely, people who lack status congregate in shared, or public, areas such as factory floors, showrooms, waiting rooms, retail outlets, or restaurants.

High status is expressed in the architecture of a place of work. The elite are the ones with the big offices where quaking underlings sometimes intrude. In the home, everyone has their territory. We can all feel like winners.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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