Friday Reflection – Seat Sitting

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Something shocking happened to me recently, I’d go as far as to say that a cardinal sin was committed against me. I was attending a two-day event with about 15 other people and over the two days we all attended various sessions all of which were held in the same room. This room could seat about 30 people yet despite there being double the required seats, we all sat in the same seat, the one that we had selected when we first entered the room, for every session. That was until session four in the late afternoon of the first day when I entered the room to find someone else was sitting in my seat, you can imagine the indignation I felt. This maverick in the group must have decided she wanted a change of perspective or some such crazy notion. I will never know whatever drove her to this behaviour as clearly being British I didn’t ask, I simply and quietly found another seat and was distracted for the rest of the session feeling uncomfortable and abused because of this injustice.

I have witnessed this phenomenon frequently when people on training courses or those attending regular meetings with the same people often have their seats, and unless forced to by a facilitator, the group will always gravitate to where they initially claimed their own space. You can see this play out in gyms, cafes, trains even. So thought I would look into what courses this irrational sense of ownership to a random public space that we clearly have no true claim over.

Well, apparently it is called environmental psychology and is an expression of “territoriality.” This territoriality isn’t aggressive like in gang wars but is a way we spatial organize ourselves in order to keep peace. We claim a space and others tacitly agree to it.

This allows us to control our relationships and so feel more comfortable and less vulnerable. There have been numerous studies that prove this behaviour occurs time and again. In one Marco Costa, a psychologist at the University of Bologna, used unobtrusive photography to track and record the seating habits of freshmen students at the start of the term so to minimize the impact of friendships dictating seating arrangements. He also chose classrooms in which there were sufficiently more seats than the number of students enrolled, thus allowing students more degrees of freedom as well as preempting the possibility of crowd pressure.

Unsurprising he found that most students choose the same seat over and over, even personalizing their space to defend it against the invasion if they were absent and confronting people if they didn’t happen to sit in their seat.

According to Temple University professor Ralph B. Taylor, who is the author of Human Territorial Functioning: An Empirical Perspective on Individual and Small Group Territorial Cognitions, by establishing a personal territory, occupants avoid the daily need to negotiate with the external environment. Because they’re not wasting mental energy making themselves psychologically comfortable in a new position every day, it makes it easier for them to achieve their goals, like concentrating on the lecture at hand.

You will be pleased to know, as I was, that the maverick that ruined session 4 for me sat elsewhere for session 5 and for the rest of the event. I noticed she did continue to move about a bit, sitting in others’ seats and although I could see this bothered them, this didn’t bother me, I mean how petty can some people be – it isn’t really their seat, not like mine!