Why Is It…?

 “Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].


Q:  Why is it that some people stake claim to property that doesn’t really belong to them? The break room at my job has several tables and chairs. One of my co-workers always sits at the same seat every day. If she comes in and finds someone else sitting in “her” spot, she seems irked and offended. Why would someone take this attitude, when the tables are there for all employees to use?


A:  Your question has to do with issues of territoriality. All animals (and even plant life) show tendencies toward the demarcation of personal space. While dogs mark trees, humans erect fences and draw geo-political boundaries around communities, states and nations to designate territory. And while territoriality appears to be a natural function of life on earth – humans often mislabel degrees of ownership – leading to social conflict and confrontation.

Essentially, there are three types of territory:  primary, secondary and public. A primary territory is one that is personal and considered exclusively for private use. Examples of primary domains are social security numbers, driver’s licenses and personal belongings. These items are designated as private property and assign “ownership” and rights of entitlement and use to one, single individual.

Secondary domains are territories (items or space) that are designated for shared use by a select group of qualified members. Examples of secondary territories include exercise equipment at health clubs, office supplies in the workplace and seating in movie theatres and classrooms. For roommates sharing an apartment, the kitchen and appliances may be a secondary territory, while their own personal bedrooms are primary.

Public domains are spaces or items that are available to all people and typically don’t carry degrees of membership as prerequisites of use. Public beaches, parks, picnic tables, benches and water fountains are all examples of public domains. If the beaches or parks require paid stickers or tokens – the territory then becomes secondary or shared. Some social territories are more complex and may include more than one dimension. For example, a department store may be a public domain (anyone can enter), but the dressing room stalls within the store are considered private when in use.

One of the interesting social dynamics of human behavior is that we often wrongfully consider secondary or public spaces as private. As in the case of your co-worker – the seating in your break room is provided for the employees of your company and are, indeed, secondary domains. However, your co-worker has apparently designated a specific seat as her own personal space. This behavior is all too common. In my years of teaching, I have seen it every semester. Students come in on the first day of class and select a seat of their own choosing. Then, each subsequent class period, they intuitively return to this same seating arrangement with little to no variation whatsoever.

Should a new student enroll during the second or third week of class and arrive early – taking a seat that was already claimed – the original students will appear noticeably flustered and dismayed upon finding “their” seats taken. This is why people place their coats on the back of chairs in movie theaters when going for popcorn in an effort to “mark” their territory.

The marking of personal space has roots in socio-biological explanations. When competing for scarce resources in a competitive environment, it improves our chances of survival. We gain a sense of personal empowerment and control by claiming “what’s ours” to protect what we value from the trespass of others. And while all humans display tendencies toward territoriality, this dynamic varies according to cultural values. For example, the Native Americans did not possess the same values of “land ownership” that was coveted by whites – as evidenced by the exploitive inequities that transpired historically. On an individual level, contemporary America has a viciously competitive social structure and many individuals feel insecure and disenfranchised by the “rat race” approach to daily living. Therefore, to stake claim to a break-room chair takes on a symbolism of personal rights and recognition in an impersonal society that regards people as numbered cogs rather than unique and valued individuals.

Flagrant demarcations of personal space are indicative of deep seeded insecurities and fears. We erect boundaries to advertise and ensure that a clear and present line is drawn to distinguish between what’s “ours” vs. “theirs.” If, and when, we adopt a world view of shared community – the issues of personal ownership will become obsolete.