Major sports events such as the Super Bowl are often played on “neutral territory” with the intention of not giving one team an advantage over the other. Some sports (like soccer) have even implemented rules that favor the team playing away in play-off matches by weighing goals scored away more than goals scored at home (at an overall tied score). These rule modifications are based on a well-documented phenomenon in sports—the home-field advantage. Athletes and sports teams playing at home are, on average, more successful than teams playing away. This home advantage is backed up by a large body of research. Although, the home advantage is not unequivocal and is more prevalent in some analyses as compared to others, there are hardly any instances in sports in which athletes or teams are more successful away from their home venue. The ‘classical model’ of the home advantage assumes four main factors that contribute to the advantage: the support of the home audience; travel fatigue of the away team; familiarity with the home venue; and rules or referee decisions that might favor the home team. In addition to these factors, recent research has indicated that our evolutionary heritage might further contribute to the home advantage as athletes seem to show traces of a natural protective physiological and behavioral response to protect their perceived territory.
Given the limited resources and space on earth, most animals show a natural protective response to territorial incursion which can be considered an evolved response tendency intended to secure one’s perceived territory. Although, it is virtually undisputed that humans exhibit territoriality, at the national, family home, or temporary (my-seat-in-the-bus) level, the question remains how meaningful the similarities are to animal territoriality.
According to the influential biologist Edward O. Wilson, territoriality can be defined as the occupation of an area by an animal or group of animals by means of repulsion through overt defense or advertisement. This definition emphasizes a behavioral basis of territoriality without overemphasizing aggression—the most typical behavioral response attributed to territoriality—at the expense of other behavioral possibilities, for example, mutual avoidance based on olfactory, auditory, or visual signals. An important aspect of the territoriality response pattern has been suggested to be certain changes in hormone levels (e.g. an increase in testosterone secretion). As hormones such as testosterone have a catalyzing effect on behavior, it comes as no surprise that testosterone levels have been shown to coincide with certain behaviors signaling or forcing intruders to stay away from an animal’s perceived territory.
Although territoriality has typically been studied using animal models, research has suggested that humans sometimes show a similar territorial response to other animals. This research is supportive of Charles Darwin’s theorizing that the difference between humans and animals is one of degree rather than of kind. Even though human territoriality is considered an important topic by scientists, it is a difficult one to study empirically and no particular paradigm has been developed to systematically study and gain understanding on this topic. However, individual studies have proposed that the field of competitive sports seems a fruitful paradigm to investigate human territoriality.
A first important study by Neave and Wolfson (2003) demonstrated that home teams in competitive sports show an increased testosterone level as compared to away teams. In support of this initial finding, Carré and colleagues (2006) reported further evidence showing that elite hockey players had significantly higher pre-game testosterone playing in their home territory as compared to their opponents’ territory. This increased level of testosterone was further shown to be associated with higher levels of confidence and lower levels of anxiety when playing at home in comparison to away. This finding exemplifies that the hormone testosterone triggers a cascade of physiological changes that have the potential to influence behavior. These findings led Furley, Schweizer, & Memmert (2018) to hypothesize that athletes would behave differently before a competitive match depending on whether they were playing at home or away. More specifically, the researchers predicted that elite and amateur male soccer players change their nonverbal behavior prior to the game depending on game location and that these changes can reliably be recognized by observers.
The first experiment on this hypothesis tested if both male and female perceivers with little knowledge of the respective sport would be able to judge who is playing at home or away in ongoing professional sport competition (UEFA Champions League in soccer) based on short observations (snippets of televised video recordings) of nonverbal behavior occurring before the game had started. Experiment 2 tested the hypothesis that soccer players playing at home would be rated higher on behavioral dimensions that have been linked to territoriality in the past. It was expected that home playing athletes would be rated relatively higher than away playing athletes in their pre-game nonverbal behaviors in terms of dominance, assertiveness, and aggression. A third experiment was designed to replicate the first two experiments with different video snippets taken from amateur soccer games in Germany that are not played in front of large audiences.
The results of this series of studies was published in Evolutionary Psychology and conclusively showed that both male and female observers with very limited domain-specific knowledge of soccer could significantly differentiate between home playing and away playing male athletes when only watching short video clips (about five seconds) of athletes shortly before the match started. The experiments further showed that observers of these video snippets also rated professional and amateur soccer players higher on assertiveness, dominance, and aggression when playing at home compared to playing away. In this respect, the results are indicative of competitive male athletes signaling territoriality depending on whether they are on their perceived home territory or away territory.
Signaling territoriality of home-playing athletes might contribute to the home advantage. For example, home-playing athletes may enter the playing field more erect and perform their warm-up routines more assertively and dominantly and thereby intimidate their opponents.
Carré, J. M., Muir, C., Belanger, J., Putnam, S. K. (2006). Pre-competition hormonal and psychological levels of elite hockey players: Relationship to the “home advantage.” Physiology & Behavior, 89, 392–398. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2006.07.011
Neave, N., Wolfson, S. (2003). Testosterone, territoriality, and the “home advantage.” Physiology & Behavior, 78, 269–275. doi:10.1016/S0031-9384(02)00969-1