It’s Mine and You Can’t Have It


You’ve hit the parking space lottery. A driver is about to leave a spot. His backup lights are lit. Politely, you sidle over in your car, primed to grab the vacancy.

But what’s this? The driver just sits there, giving his face the once-over in the rearview mirror, adjusting his glasses, running his hands through his hair. You’d swear this guy is making you wait only because, metaphorically speaking, you are drooling over his spot.

Such a conclusion might not be paranoid fantasy. Evolution has not altered our territorial instinct much, even when it appears purposeless. After all, the idea of leaving a parking space is to, well, leave. But a recent study of parking lot behavior (as well as other studies of human behavior in relation to public space) shows our territorial impulse is as strong as the territorial behavior of many animals. While marking with urine, thankfully, is not in the repertoire of human territorial behavior, lingering in a parking space you have no use for is.

In a study of 220 drivers at an Atlanta area mall, conducted by Penn State sociologist Barry Ruback and a colleague, it took an average of:


* 27 seconds to back out if no one was waiting.

* 31 seconds if a car was waiting for the space.

* 43 seconds if the waiting car honked.

All times were measured from the moment the driver opened the door to departure.


“People as well as animals behave territorially when the territories such as food, sexual partners, water and children are necessary to the survival of the species and it makes sense to defend it,” says Ruback, who specializes in studying human behavior in relation to public territory. “The thing about a parking space is, what kind of sense does it make to try and stay in a space that you are trying to leave?”

Breaking up with a great parking space is hard to do. You could even argue that parking spaces are critical to our survival as a species. After all, you have to park the car to hunt and gather at the local Food World. And the scarcer a parking space, the greater its value, Ruback says.

And that may be the key to our loony territorial behavior over seemingly trivial public places and objects.

At public telephones (highly valuable if you happen to need one), Ruback has found that a person spends an average of 82 seconds talking. But if someone is waiting, the average stretches to four minutes--almost three times as long. At public libraries, people “defended” library carrels (highly valuable compared to, say, a mere table) if someone tried to snag one they had staked out. Ruback found that browsers in library aisles who were “intruded” upon by someone standing nearby lingered in the aisle longer than when they were there alone.

“We found the greater the intrusion, the longer they stayed,” Ruback says. “In other words, maybe this particular bookcase of books is more valuable than another bookcase.”


Of course, alternative explanations abound. One is that interlopers are distracting, causing people to take more time backing out to avoid collisions or causing someone on the telephone to take longer to finish a conversation. Another, offered by reviewers of the study, is that we take our time just to be nasty.

Further proving Ruback’s point about parking lot territoriality was an additional experiment to see if people’s behavior depended on whether the waiting car was a “high or low status” car.


“People in America identify with cars,” Ruback says. “They seem to be an extension of us.”

When the car waiting for a space was an Infinity Q45 or a Lexus SC400, (valued at $57,000 and $43,000, respectively), male drivers backed out in 30 seconds, compared to 40 seconds for a 1985 Nissan Maxima station wagon (valued at $5,200). Women drivers, however, reacted just the opposite: They cleared out in 41 seconds for the pricey cars and 36 seconds for the older car.

“It could be that status and dominance are more important to males,” Ruback says. “Of course status matters to females . . . but it wasn’t significant [in this experiment].” (Fem thought: Maybe women coyly linger to snatch a better look at the mister in the luxury mobile and maybe men are intimidated by the hotter rod?)

Most interesting, Ruback says, is the contradiction between what people say they would do and how they actually behave. When asked what they would do if they knew someone was waiting for a parking space or a public telephone, people said they would aim to please and quickly depart or shorten their phone conversation.

“This shows that people are not aware of [acting territorially],” Ruback says.

But it appears we do know when we want to make someone pay for being a jerk. When asked how they would behave if someone waiting for a parking space honked at them, people said they would take longer to depart than the “average person.”

In other words, they would take their own sweet time and then some.