Public Release: 

When Tested, Drivers Will Defend Parking Space

Penn State

University Park, Pa. --- As you get into your car at the shopping mall, you notice a car waiting to take your parking space. You hurry to get your keys out and drive away. But that's not true in most cases, according to researchers.

"Most people think they leave faster, but in reality, they take more time to leave when another car waits near their space," said Penn State researcher Barry Ruback, professor of sociology and crime, law and justice. "And if the other driver honks the horn, people will really slow down their departure just to occupy the parking space a little longer."

The response is called territorial behavior, which involves marking or defending a location in order to indicate a presumed right to a particular place. This behavior is likely to occur if the place has desirable resources such as game for hunting.

"Like our ancestors, we humans still defend territories, but we do so even when they are temporary public areas," Ruback said. This study shows that people demonstrate this response even when the parking space no longer has value for them, but merely to prevent another driver from possessing the space.

"Even though people were leaving the parking space, departing drivers took longer when someone else wanted the space than when no one else wanted the space," the sociologist said. "This reaction is counterproductive because it takes more time and the driver's entire goal was to leave the space anyway.

"But our research shows that people do become territorial in the face of another driver and become even more territorial when the driver acts very intrusively, such as honking the car," Ruback said.

He and Daniel Juieng published the article, "Territorial Defense in Parking Lots: Retaliation Against Waiting Drivers" in the May 1-15 issue of Journal of Applied Social Psychology (Volume 27, Number 9). They detailed the results of three studies conducted in a parking lot at a metropolitan mall.

First, the researchers and a team of students observed 200 departing cars and compared reactions of drivers who were and who were not intruded upon by another car. Then the researchers conducted an experiment with 240 cars by alternately sending in cars and introducing intrusions like honking. Then, they asked 100 individuals to fill out questionnaires about how they would behave under such conditions.

"Respondents saw themselves as more polite than others with regard to a silently waiting driver, but less polite than others with regard to a honking driver," Ruback said. "But their actions did not support their stated beliefs. There is inconsistency between what people think they do and their actual behavior."

One possible explanation is that people were distracted by the waiting car and became more cautious, leaving the space slowly to avoid a collision with the other car. But a honking car should actually then prompt people to leave even faster, and they don't. In fact, people spend even more time making their exit, Ruback said.

Men and women drivers responded equally to intruding cars; men left their parking space faster when a high-status car was waiting in the lot, the studies show.

This research is similar to earlier research by Ruback on territorial behavior and public telephones, and in public areas such as libraries. He also has studied territorial behavior in connection with prison overcrowding.


EDITORS: Dr. Ruback can be contacted at 865-1307 or email


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