At this point in the semester, it’s rare to see a student change seats in class.
Although many factors may go into a student’s seating choice — such as who they know in the class, how shy they are, or even their levels of motivation, according to Assistant Professor of Psychology Jeri Little — the phenomenon also demonstrates how people relate to and claim items and spaces, Professor of Sociology Peter Blum and Associate Professor of Economics Michael Clark said.
Clark, who teaches Behavioral Economics, said his best explanation relates to focal points, which are the options that seem immediately obvious to people.
“Focal points do not have to be optimal solutions, but they help us avoid the choices that would be a lack of coordination, such as people continually upsetting other people’s expectations by changing seats,” Clark said in an email.
Junior economics major Jake Kenyon, who is in Clark’s Behavioral Economics course, said the phenomenon is basically an informal version of property rights.
“In most classes, especially at Hillsdale, people are fairly respectful of this and generally use the same seat except when classes are very full,” Kenyon said in an email. “I think it’s interesting just because these informal property rights generally are expected to be respected, even though there is no formal reason why they should be.”
These property rights relate to the endowment effect — the idea that a sense of ownership makes something more valuable, Kenyon said.
This sense of ownership, however, also extends more generally than just physical objects.
“I think you could say, in general, that it’s related to the fact that everyone thinks they have claim to more space than just their physical body,” Blum said.
It can be seen in a form of marking territory like leaving books at a table or at a classroom seat. People, Blum said, feel they have a claim to that space.
“It is the case that people consider space around them to be kind of an extension of their bodily territory,” Blum said.
It’s a phenomenon seen when standing in line, Blum said. If somebody gets too close to the person in front of or behind them, it makes them uncomfortable.
But when it comes to unofficially official seating arrangements, more may come into play.
“There may be a social aspect to choosing a seat,” senior psychology major Todd Frickey said in an email. “Students may choose a seat, because their friends are close by and strictly for that reason. If their friends moved seats, they may also. People may also not want to move seats, because they are afraid of upsetting others who may have their seats.”
Still, seating arrangement is fairly final, Little said.
“On the first day, it’s all fair game,” she said. “On the second day, even, it’s kind of fair game. But once seats have been established and the majority of people have been sitting in the same seats, then I think you’re kind of stuck.”
Although Blum “locks in” seating after the first few classes, Little doesn’t assign seating at any point. Students just tend to stay in the same seat or area.
“Humans are creatures of habit; we like familiarity,” Frickey said. “Our brain naturally makes patterns and tries to make sense of everything. For some, it may give students some consistency and allow them to fully focus on classwork because their environment is stable.”
Ultimately, both social and individual factors cause the behavior, Blum said.
“It’s a selfhood issue,” he said. “Something that I own is, at least in a very weak sense, an extension of myself. And that’s what we’re doing here with space.”