If you have ever been pregnant or known someone who is pregnant, you are aware of the nesting instinct. During pregnancy, women experience an increase in the production of estradiol, which, among other things, results in an uncommonly strong desire to organize and clean.  Anthropological data, like this study from Marla Anderson and M.D. Rutherford at McMaster University, suggest that having control over the environment is a key feature of childbirth preparation in humans, including decisions about where birth will take place, and who will be welcome in the birthing environment. Interestingly, this is not unique to humans; a strong nesting instinct is also found birds, fish, squirrels, mice and pigs.

I’ve been thinking lately about how this urge to nest, and how it is not unique to pregnant women, but pretty important for the rest of us too. Nesting tendencies show up in our homes, at work, or just any place where we spend time. Having a spot to call your own and the liberty to set it up the way you like it is core to our DNA. As a workplace designer, I’ve spend thousands of hours observing others at work as part of my job. I’m always surprised by the amount of “stuff” laid out on desks and displayed on walls. I have seen a fair share of paper piles, toys, trophies, sport paraphernalia, games, framed diplomas, artwork, photos, candy jars, holiday decorations, even a fish bowl or two. Some of these things are related to work, but most are personal affects. You could claim that they are extraneous, until you try to take them away.

Many office workers today are being asked to give up their individual desk and sit in a different seat every day as part of a mobile/ flexible work strategy. This makes a ton of sense from an economics point of view. But try to sell people on the idea of sharing space, or taking away assigned space to individuals, and you will be met with extreme resistance. To ask workers to get rid of their individual spot and move into an environment where they share space with others is like asking them to remove an arm. It doesn’t happen without a lot of pain and anguish.

I’m not here to argue about the rights or wrongs of “unassigned” seating at work – at least not here. What I am interested in understanding, is why we feel so strongly about having a territory to call our own and find such comfort in surrounding ourselves with certain artifacts. And I’m not just picking up on our feelings or behaviors at work. If you’ve ever been around my mother-in-law’s house and seen her extensive Hummel figurine collection, you’ll see a perfect example of what I mean.

There are two major themes from psychology that help explain this nesting phenomenon.

Territory Marking

Most of us are familiar with the need to mark territory. Dog and cats will mark territory with their urine, but us humans do so in different ways. Sometimes we erect physical boundaries to stake claim to a personal space, like putting up a fence or a wall. Other times, we mark territory by making a claim on it in some way, like placing a coat over the back of a chair at a restaurant or spreading books on a table at the library. There are all kinds of fascinating studies that show how the more personal space you occupy (either because you mark it for yourself or other people give it to you), the more likely you are to have power.

Why are we so territorial? From a biological perspective, similar to other animals, we tend to claim a territory or space of our own to secure resources and to have a private place to live and work. Unlike other animals, our need for personal territory has a socio-cognitive reason as well. We mark territory for simplification and order. A fence around my house is a signal that the property inside is mine and you can’t just walk in and take food out of my fridge. The physical boundary is a protective barrier and a symbol that someone controls the area within.

Studies of human territoriality describe it as having certain traits: physical space, possession, defense, exclusiveness of use, markers, personalization and identity. If you can claim any or all of these things, the turf is yours. The ultimate marking of territory in the workplace is an assigned office with a lockable door, a name plate outside of it and diplomas all over the walls showcasing credentials of the occupant. Individual “ownership” of space and the desire to claim a patch of grass, wherever that happens to be, is second nature to us. It’s a system we understand and trust.

Interestingly, not all cultures value territory the same way. According to studies of country culture by Hofstede and Hofstede, the need for individual territory is particularly strong in countries that value independence (versus interdependence). These countries include the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, France and Sweden, among others. According to Sally Augustin, in her book Place Advantage, “people from cultures that value independence feel their environment should conform to their needs and are more apt to change it…” versus people in countries that value interdependence like Venezuela, Mexico, the Philippines, South Korea, China, etc.

The Endowment Effect

Claiming territory doesn’t explain the powerful need we have to surround ourselves with artifacts. This is what psychologists call the “endowment effect” otherwise known as the divestiture aversion. The endowment effect hypothesis suggests that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them. According to Dr. Christian Jarret, in an article for the British Psychological Society, “Our possessions become extensions of the self. We use them to signal to ourselves, and others, who we want to be and where we want to belong. And long after we’re gone, they become our legacy. Some might even say our essence lives on in what once we made or owned.” Apparently, the attachment to possessions starts very early in life.  Jarret explains, “The idea that we can own something, possess it as if a part of ourselves, is one that children grasp by the age of two.”

The endowment effect explains why people do not throw things away, including my mother-in-law and her Hummels as well as my husband and his old economics school books that must be thirty years out of date. It might also explain why people feel hurt at work when we ask them to remove or reduce the number of personal items they can have at their desk. We are taking away what they perceive to be an extension of themselves.  This TED Video by Jarret that explains this phenomenon beautifully.

The Anti-Nest Movement: Modernism

If ever there was a time in recent human history when the idea of nesting was given a bad name it was the modern architecture movement. Modern architecture or modernist architecture is a term applied to a style of buildings that emerged in the first half of the 20th century, inspired by new technologies in construction, particularly glass, steel and reinforced concrete. Modernist buildings were about expressing the new structural capabilities of the materials used and “ornamentation” was discouraged. Not only were these buildings designed intentionally to be austere, but often modernist architects insisted that building occupants stick with a limited palette of furniture and accessories. Mies Van Der Rohe, who coined the famous saying “less is more,” was a firm believer in keeping his designs very clean and uncluttered. The Seagram’s Building on Park Avenue in New York City is a great example of this. All tenants were required to have white window blinds, and to keep them fully open, halfway open/closed or fully closed, so that the building would have visual uniformity from the street.

I was trained as an architect to really love and appreciate the modernist design movement, but many people find it cold and inhumane.  I think the endowment effect may have something to do with this negative reaction.


The New Nest at Work

Oprah has us purging our closets, the sustainability movement has us reducing our carbon footprint and mobility has us storing everything in the cloud. There is clearly is a movement afoot to reduce the amount of territory we use and “stuff” we have around us. But I don’t believe we will ever completely lose the desire for individual control over our environment – it’s human nature. The question is, what form will our nests take in the future?  And for those organizations that move away from assigning workers individual spaces, what are the right substitutes? Is technology enough to fill the gap, i.e. a tablet to call your own vs. an office?  I don’t think we have the answers quite yet. The good news is that we now know what is driving our subconscious, so we can find new (and possibly better!) ways to fill our cravings for individual ownership, take control of our surroundings and evolve our workplace at the same time.

Photograph of Leigh StringerLeigh Stringer is a workplace strategy expert and researcher.  She works for EYP, an architecture and engineering firm and is the author of The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employe