Stefan Speaks

Stefan Speaks


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Today I’m gonna talk about territoriality in humans. While we don’t pee around our neighborhood we still have some signals to show others that what’s ours – is ours!

What’s Territoriality Means?


By definition it’s the behavior of animals (mostly males) that is meant to secure a personal or a group’s geographical area for food and reproduction. By using auditory (bird’s singing) visual (boar’s markings on a tree) and olfactory (the strong scent of your dog’s urine) animals mark their territory and signal their peers that their presence is not welcomed in their zone.

Invasion of this territory is often met with aggression, where only one side will come up victorious with the rights to eat, mate and roam the field freely until a new challenger will arise.

So how is relevant to us? Let’s find out…

Are Humans Territorial?

Yes we are, but…

Humans have many similarities to animal’s territorial behavior, only in a more sophisticated way (I don’t believe you wake up every morning to pee around your lawn to mark it as yours, do you?).

It starts at the grand scale – countries, each with its own borders and armies to guard it. Then we can scale down to: regions, cites, streets, your neighborhood, your house, your room, your table and finally – your favorite mug!

Just like other animals, we like to border our stuff and mark them as ours in various ways (more on that later). There is also a strong link between social status and the ownership and size of territory, the bigger it is – the higher the status (in most cases).

On the flip side, we display some distinct behaviors that separate us from other animals:

First of all, we use territory for a variety of purposes besides breeding and securing food resources. We have special places for: work, recreation, sports, study or just hanging out. We also guard our territory out of different reasons; if you find your house robbed you won’t check the fridge to look for missing food!

Secondly, it’s not very common to act aggressively towards others who invade your space. You might get angry yes, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll bare your teeth and prepare for an attack. Moreover, we often act oppositely to territoriality by inviting others to our place for social or technical purposes.

And lastly, we don’t mark our territory with our pee (:
Well in all seriousness, we tend to mark our territory using objects or other artificial means, while animals use a more “direct” way of signaling.

Aside from these distinct differences, one simple and very important question remains:

Why are Humans Territorial?

Since we don’t use territory in the same fashion as other animals, why are we so touchy about it?

Well there are two types of perspective about it:

Socio – Biological Perspective:

From this perspective our territoriality developed from biological necessities, just like in other animals. We need space to secure resources and to have our own breeding area. The differences between us and other animals grew due to our social advancement and intellectual, but the basic instincts and principles remained the same.

Socio – Cognitive Perspective:

In this perspective, it argued that while it’s true that we started that behavior from biological needs, we evolved and now using territoriality for another concept – simplification and order. It means that it’s much easier to survive as a society if we know how to act as a society and how to behave with others – what we can do and can’t do to live peacefully and comfortably as much as possible. So if I’ll build a fence around my house it won’t be to prevent you from raiding my fridge, but to show you that this property is mine, and I control it.

How Humans Show Territoriality?

First of all, let’s admit that there are several kinds of territories for humans. Let’s examine the types as described by Irwin Altman – an American psychologist who made a lot of work in social and environmental psychology.

The types are:

  1. There is the primary type of territory – it’s the kind of territory that really belongs to you – your home, your car, your private office, your spouse… 
  2. Secondary type of territory – it’s the places and stuff you use often, but are not really ‘yours’ – your favorite seat in your local bar, your favorite spot in the park and so forth…
  3. Public space – it’s everybody’s space! Well maybe except for suspicious strangers and terrorists.

Why make this distinction? Because it affects what we can do in each space and how would we react if it’s invaded.

If I would enter your home uninvited and sit on your favorite couch – you’ll feel quite alarmed and completely unsatisfied, you may even have the right to shoot me in some countries.

But, if I would sit in ‘your’ place in your pub, you’ll just swallow your ego and move to another spot. If it’s a public space – you probably won’t care much about seats as long as there’s one.

Another aspect of this distinction is how do we treat and exert our control over each territory:

We build fences around our house and lock the door to it – so we are the only ones who have control over it. We tend to touch or to lean on our stuff – be it our partner or our car, it’s a visual universal manifestation of the statement “this is mine”.

In our secondary territories we tend to leave our personal marks – like carving our initials, or if you’re in a gang or just being in a very ‘creative’ mood, you might use graffiti to doodle around the neighborhood.

Other than that, as creatures of habit, we like sitting exactly in the same place over and over again because it feels like a home away from home. But other than that, we probably won’t do a thing if someone else is occupying it momentarily.

How we Personalize our Territory

Another thing that is quite unique to humans is that we personalize our territory. Yes, you can argue that each animal has its unique aroma or sign to mark her borders, but you can’t really assume anything about the personality of a boar by its tusk’s marks on the tree.

You can, however, tell a lot about a person by the way he treats and organize his space. Open (or careless) people will leave their environment visible and accessible to others. Organized and protective people will guard and arrange their things in a neat fashion, you instinctively avoid touching their stuff because you wouldn’t want to mess it up.

Besides that, people put a lot of stuff to accustom their surroundings to their taste and to show others who they are: family photos, cat photos, toys, favorite posters, geeky gadgets, sexy wallpapers or neat clean desk all say something about the person who uses that space.

Take Aways

I think the most important lesson here is to understand that humans and animals have a lot in common when it comes to territoriality, but in the same time, there is also a BIG difference.

It means that while we don’t bark at strangers, or even show any signs of hostility, it doesn’t mean that we like when our territory is invaded. Even if we’re not expressing it, we can really hold a grudge for someone instinctively, and even unknowingly, due to his disrespect for our territory.

So watch out when treading in unknown territory: avoid bad habits like leaning on other’s people property (or boyfriends), if you’re a guest ask for a permission to use his stuff or to sit in a certain seat (you don’t want to sit in the dad’s favorite chair when he comes back tired and angry from work, believe me), and generally don’t get too much “at home” unless you feel invited and welcome.

Territoriality can really bite you in the ass if you’re not careful, unless it’s your purpose to anger and stress someone by violating his territory.Except that, make your own little observations – watch how people act in different territories and derive your own conclusions.


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