Territorial Behavior Among Human Beings

March 7, 1975


The aim of the practical was to observe territorial behavior among human beings and explore it in relation to animals in the comparative psychological perspective. The general definition of a territory is a “defended area”. It has to be defended through actual aggression or the threat of it. Territoriality has been observed to exist among certain animal species like birds, insects, mammals and vertebrates. Therefore, a parallel with man has had to be established because territoriality has been seen to exist in man; both as an individual and a group.

The major characteristic of territoriality as observed by comparative psychologists like Lorenz, Tinbergen, and ethnologists like Eibl-Ebesfeldt, is that an animal must be aggressive towards conspecifics. Through studies and observations, the authors have come to the conclusion that the territorial behavior possesses several functions in the evolution and preservation of species. In general it has been suggested that territoriality saves the purposes of distributing or spreading the animals over a large area resulting in the proper utilization of feeding resources, to enable safe and undisturbed reproductive behavior, for example, territoriality in birds ensures that they do not build nests too close together. And a last function of territoriality is said to be reduction of aggression in the animal species which have a high level of it.

SUBJECTS: The subjects consisted of the University of Zambia students who read in the University library. Eight subjects were observed.

MATERIALS: The apparatus used in the experiment consisted of a pen and paper for recording the sitting arrangements and signs of territorial behavior of the subjects.

PROCEDURE: O represents Observer

S represents Subject

Initially, O goes into the library and sits on one of the tables. He notes sitting arrangements of S’s, spacing and objects which are possibly used for marking S’s territory. After a while, O moves to a table which has almost all the seats full and sits next to S and notes the reaction of S; moving chair, objects etc.

Then especially during a different time when there are many empty seats; 12 to 13 hours when many subjects go for lunch, O sits next or adjacent to a subject and notes his reaction.

RESULTS: The tables are made out of a combination of several smaller tables which provide a comfortable space for writing and reading for an individual student.

When a student sits down, he normally or always defines his territory by placing his books all over the rectangular spacing. This was confirmed in all the observations I made when the books are placed in this way, no other student can sit on the chair to read even if the owner of the “territory” goes away for a long time.

On 31st December 1974 at 9 hours, I was seated on a desk in the reference deck. Six students got their writing pads and apparently went away to attend class lectures. While they were away, three students came looking for a table where they could read. Each one of them came, looked around and went away to another deck. Despite the fact that the owners of the books were away, the three could not occupy their desks. From this observation, we can say that objects act as very strong definitions of territory for human beings.

On deck 14 (psychology) 23rd December 1974, I sat down to read beside a female student. Immediately I sat on the chair next to her, she pulled towards her the edges of books which were protruding into my space. This showed that human beings respect and recognize each other’s territory.


Students who read in the library regularly, at least every day, tend to have a specific chair and table where they read from every day. It is as if they say; “This is my space, I own it”.


On 14th February 1975, a Zambian female student stopped reading at 17 hours. She piled her books on the table, expecting to return and resume reading after supper. When she returned, the table was occupied by three Asian students. Her books had been moved to the middle of the table where it was difficult to determine whether she had previously sat on one of the chairs. With a hissing whisper, she asked one of the students whether he had moved the books. The student denied it. There was a hushed argument pointing of fingers; then the Asian male student rose violently but was held by the other two. At this point, the female student angrily got her books and walked out.


During the first week of the beginning of my second year, I went into the library on the sociology deck. I put my books on one of the tables, sat and wrote for a while. Then I went to look for a book on the shelves. A first year male student arrived; he pushed aside my books and sat down to read. I was very angry. I went there and stared at him for a few seconds and hissed; “You don’t push away books when someone is already sitting there!” I walked away and he seemed amazed. Apparently, he was not yet acquainted with the informal rules about marking one’s space in the library.


The few observations made seem to confirm that people display territoriality although it lacks overt aggression as is the case with animals.

What purpose, if any, does territoriality save for the human being in such a place like the library? Biological functions are not very evident. People do not mate or show overt courtship behavior in the library and they do not obtain their food from it. Therefore, the only plausible explanation for man to display territoriality in places like the library, is that it is one of those behaviors which have lost their specific evolutionary functions and their remnants are perhaps in the process of degenerating into ritual behavior; i.e. it will no longer save its original biological function.

But one of the functions it could be still saving is to distribute or rather spread the readers over all the available space in the library. Presumably, man feels uncomfortable having limited breathing and elbow movements, when they are too close together.

Territoriality, the one displayed in libraries in particular seems to be an innate or inherited tendency. “As in most vertebrates, we observe in man distinct territorial behavior. Individuals maintain distinct distances between themselves and others. Children develop a feeling for property. The expression of both tendencies seems to be based on a common mechanism.” (Eibl-Ebesfeldt; 1971, P. 444)

The spacing which is induced by territoriality might be important for the propagation of the human species. This is suggested by an experiment in overcrowding in which animals showed serious behavioral pathologies and physiological malfunctioning. Calhoun (1956, 1962) conducted an experiment in which a colony of Norway rats were made to live in an overcrowded pen. Although the rats were allowed to roam in various compartments, they ended up living together in one pen. Calhoun termed this phenomenon “pathological togetherness”. The rats’ fertility was lowered and their life span was shortened. Mann sums up by saying; “In mice, overcrowding in laboratory cages leads to abnormal sexual behavior, decreased reproductive and nursing capacities, and aborted pregnancies, deficient maternal care for the young and disrupted next building.” (Mann, 1969, P. 17)

Although the analogy cannot be applied to the library situation, nevertheless, territoriality in humans in the library could be to the advantage of the species. For example some contagious diseases like sneezing and other more serious diseases are prevented from spreading due to the distances which human beings maintain between each other. The evidence from overcrowding rats could also explain the high incidence of crime and violence which prevails in overcrowded suburbs of cities.

An interesting area of further examination in the library is the observation in animals that “Territories have been likened to elastic discs – the more they are compressed, the more they resist further compression.” (Manning; 1972, P. 99). In the library this could be tested by an observer or experimenter noticing that a table is already filled but puts an extra chair where there is supposed to be none as shown below.



If a chair is for example placed on either X, since the territories are further compressed, would A and B or A and D react with overt aggression? In this respect perhaps ethical values of the individual subjects would come into question. But however, the results would be interesting.

In contrast with the seemingly inhibited aggression in the library human territoriality, I report on the few observations made at Lachnver National Park during a field trip last December. The Kafue Leahwe was observed at the beginning of the establishment of territories. There was a herd of 10,000 Leahwe, females were moving in large herds while males were scattered around in distances of about fifteen meters apart. There was a fight nearly every five minutes. Chessing between males had a very high frequency and they were also constantly digging horns in the ground. In the 10 minutes we spent observing the last herd of about 1,000, six fights were observed between males and the last one lasted up to 10 minutes until a third male had to separate them to end the fight.


Manning, A. W. G., An introduction to Animal behavior. (1972)

Mann, L. Social Psychology(1969)

Eibl-Ebesfeldt, Ethology(1970)


(The original document was written on March 7, 1975 when the author, now Mwizenge S. Tembo, was a Junior at University of Zambia majoring in Psychology and Sociology)

Observing Territorial Behavior of Human Beings:

Psychology 932 Practical Report By Jacob Tembo