Drivers are territorial about their cars

Psychologists have examined the way people see their cars as part of their territory. Graham Fraine and colleagues conducted focus groups with a cross-section of 89 participants, from young, novice drivers to more experienced people who drive vehicles for a living.
The researchers drew on Irwin Altman’s classic work on human territoriality conducted in the 70s and 80s, which posited that territory can be seen as either primary, secondary or public according to factors like how much time is spent in the space, how central it is to someone’s life and how much they mark the space out as their own using barriers or signs of ownership.

The comments made by many participants showed they viewed their cars as a form of primary territory akin to the way we view our homes. For example, people talked of their car as a safe haven (“Sometimes if I’m not going for a drive, I’ll just go and sit in it and put on the radio”) and as a repository of memories (“I don’t want to get rid of it because of the sentimental value”), both of which are signs of primary territory.

The drivers also described ways they marked their cars, either for self-expression (“My car’s dedicated to Mark Bolan”) or communication (“I suppose a sticker is a sort of way of communicating the things that you disagree with”). The behaviour of other drivers on the road, in terms of tailgating or cutting in, was also discussed in terms of an invasion of space.

The Digest asked lead author Graham Fraine to reflect on whether his research could be relevant to attempts to reduce people’s car use: “Buses, trains and ferries, by virtue of being ‘public’ transport, are likely to be perceived as providing much lower levels of autonomy, privacy and identity,” he said. “Some of the focus group participants in my research have claimed that public transport doesn’t travel where and when they want, it can’t give them the music they want to listen to, and they have to sit next to people they don’t know. In turn, convenience and control (including control over music and travelling companions) were important features of the car.”

“This may in part also account for the popularity of MP3 players with public transport users, as they try to create their own personal space within the public mode of transport they inhabit. As such, providing initiatives to reduce car use may require more than provision of adequate infrastructure and timetabling for alternative modes, and ultimately begs the question of whether transport systems should be designed to cater for non-instrumental aspects of travel.”

Fraine, G., Smith, S.G., Zinkiewicz, L., Chapman, R. & Sheehan, M. (2007). At home on the road? Can drivers’ relationships with their cars be associated with territoriality? Journal of Environmental Psychology, 27, 204-214.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.