If you've seen the 1991 movie Fried Green Tomatoes then you will remember this wonderful scene:
Believe it or not, this scene actually relates to today's post about territorial behavior in parking lots.
You are probably familiar with the concept of territorial behavior. In animals, it typically involves occupying a defined territory and marking and defending it against interlopers. This territory is desirable because it contains resources (food, mates, etc.). However, there can be risk involved in defending this territory, risk that must be weighed in a sort of cost-benefit analysis. If the risk is low you defend the territory and if it is too high you flee it. Now what about public territories? Those places that do not belong to any one individual but, instead, an individual occupies a portion of it for a short period of time. In this case, the territory is less important to the individual, and they only have minimal rights to occupy it. However, individuals occupying space in a public territory can show some territoriality. If you get a little more psychological with this train of thought then you start using terms such as "symbolic value," "identity," "control," and "competence." Basically, this is a way of explaining why an individual may defend a territory even if there is nothing to be protected or gained. And that is where we pick up the parking lot study.
An older paper published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology tested these territorial behaviors in people leaving parking lots. The video example is of Evelyn Couch entering a parking lot and looking for territory. Here, the researchers are interested in whether the occupants of parking spaces defended those spaces even though their task at the location was complete and the space/territory no longer served any purpose for them. As with many psychological papers, this was broken down into three studies.
Study 1: Do departing drivers take longer to leave their parking spaces when someone is waiting for the space?
Here, the researchers observed 200 drivers in a mall parking lot and timed how long it took them to leave their parking spaces. The spaces were of prime real estate, in terms of mall parking, being the closest 52 spaces (excluding handicapped spaces) to the mall entrance. They started timing from when the departing shopper opened their car door until they had completely left the parking space, also noting if another driver was waiting for the departing driver's space. They also noted if the departing driver turned their head toward the waiting driver. They found that departing drivers took longer to leave their parking spaces if someone else was waiting for it. From this study it is unclear as to why they took longer. Sure, it could have been territoriality, but it also could have been caution to prevent collisions, distraction, or all sorts of other reasons.
Study 2: Do departing drivers take longer to leave their spaces because they are territorial or because of some other reason?
To test this they looked at four intrusion conditions (intrusion being the waiting car) in comparison to a no-intrusion condition. They also tested the distraction hypothesis by having someone drive by the subjects, independent of whether there was a car waiting for the space or not. They also tested the level of intrusion by having someone honk or not honk their horns. This study also found that drivers took longer to leave their parking spaces when another driver was waiting, regardless of the added distraction of a another car passing by. These departing drivers also took longer when the waiting driver was honking at them versus when they were not honking. Additionally, they found that male drivers took longer to leave than
female drivers if the waiting car was of lower status or value than
theirs. All findings that suggest territorial behavior.
Study 3: Are people aware of how a waiting driver affects how much time they take leaving a parking space?
In this study, the researchers gave questionnaires to 100 people who had parked at a shopping mall. This questionnaire contained scales that allowed the drivers to rate how they would feel while leaving a parking lot under three conditions: with no one waiting, with one driver waiting, and with a driver waiting who honks their horn. They also rated their beliefs about how a driver waiting for their space and and honking driver waiting for their space would affect how long it would take them and others to leave. The survey results showed that people recognized their territorial behaviors but would leave faster if a car were waiting for them but not if that car honked at them.
I gotta say that if someone was sitting behind my car honking their horn at me to move faster that I would take my sweet time too. I don't even like that slow, creepy-, stalker-follow people do when they see you walking to your car. I'm tempted to weave through the aisles just to get them to stop.
Next I'd like to find a study that looks at how well people park between the lines in a parking space and how much space they leave on either side. If I have to crawl in through the passenger side of my car one more time I might start handing out tickets for parking like a jackass.
Ruback, R., & Juieng, D. (1997). Territorial Defense in Parking Lots: Retaliation Against Waiting Drivers Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 27 (9), 821-834 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.1997.tb00661.x