How is a Possession “Me” or “Not Me”?

Kleine, S. S., Kleine, R. E., & Allen, C. T. (1995). How is a Possession “Me” or “Not Me”? Characterizing Types and an Antecedent of Material Possession Attachment. Journal of Consumer Research.

The researchers carried out two studies in which they interviewed adults (N=30 for the first one, N=24 for the second one), using Q-methodology to describe their attachment to objects across a number of variables or “factors.”

The authors found that study participants felt strongly attached to some possessions that they liked, were proud of, or felt that expressed who they were. Participants tend to keep these possessions, at least as long as they feel they represent them; when they stop having this positive valence, they get rid of them. However, there seems to be a group of possessions that participants did not like anymore and, more importantly, felt not connected with. However, they did not dispose of such “not me” possessions. Those were the possessions that were gifts, or that were personally linked to a significant person. Thus they found that 52 percent of the “not-me” possessions were gifts. “Apparently, gift receipt adds a layer of affiliation that makes even not-me objects more difficult to dispossess.”

This study shows an interesting approach to ownership that is certainly different from the stuff I’m used to read.  For starters, it was carried out with adult participants and it was published in a “Journal of Consumer Research”. Therefore, the authors do not deal with cognitive-developmental issues. The methodology seems to me obscure and not very rigorous, although I confess I’m no expert in Q-methodology. Some of the conclusions strike me as outright arbitrary. However, it was worth the read.

Susan Gelman on children’s preference for unique owned objects

Gelman, S. A., & Davidson, N. S. (2016). Young children’s preference for unique owned objects. Cognition.

This is an incredible and profound study on children’s attachment to objects, with implications both for cognitive and emotional development. It’s also a study that amazes me for the amount of work it required from researchers (who had to find brand-new replicas of more than 100 children’s attachment objects).

The experimental design is quite simple. Researchers asked 36 three-year-olds to choose between two toys for either themselves or the researcher: an old (visibly used) toy vs. a new (more attractive) toy matched in type and appearance (e.g., old vs brand-new blanket). Focal pairs contrasted an old toy that belonged to the child with a matched new object; control pairs contrasted toys the child had never seen before.

The conclusion of the study is that, by 3 years of age, young children place special value on unique owned objects. Children prefer their original objects to newer, better versions, but only in the case of the focal pairs (with their objects of attachment) and not with the control pairs (objects the child had never seen before). These findings are consistent with the view that possessions are extensions of the self.

In addition, these preferences hold for “sleep” objects (blanket, pillow) and toys representing an animated character (dolls, action figures) but not for inanimate objects (a car, a toy hammer, etc.) Uniqueness is valued for sleep objects and animate toys, but not for inanimate toys. Moreover, in 30 out of 31 cases, attachment objects had a proper name. Ownership, attachment and anthropomorphism (eyes, animated features, soft or furry texture) all combine to enhance children’s preferences for their own objects.

In addition, children seemed to understand that their special objects had value for them only in so far as they share a history with the object. That is, they did not attribute the researcher the same preference for the old (attachement) object. In this sense, they seem to understand the subjective nature of value.

The results are remarkable, among other things, because of the understanding of the abstract ownership relationships, the distinction between appearance and reality and the perspective-taking abilities involved in children’s responses. The authors also emphasize how attuned any child can be to minor features of an object that indicate that it is her unique object and not a substitute.

These findings also offer a different (experimental, cognitive) perspective on the phenomenon of “transitional objects,” first described by Donald Winnicott in the 1950s.

A remarkable study indeed.

Ekman on emotions

Ekman, P. (1984). Expression and the Nature of Emotion. In Approaches to emotion.

I plan to read and write more about emotions, as I am interested in the topic of self-possession vs. being possessed (or overwhelmed) by emotions. I wonder whether the use of ownership-related terms in this field is metaphorical, or rather points to a fundamental aspect of human experience: the fact that one must first possess oneself (one’s own body and actions) in order to possess other things. Many philosophers (Locke comes to mind, but also Hegel and Aristotle) have drawn this relationship between self-possession (or self-governance, being master of oneself) and personhood (being an agent in the world with the capacity to possess and own stuff).

In this article (a classic), Ekman distinguishes emotions from other reactions (mainly reflexes) and other affective phenomena, such as moods, emotional traits and affective disorders.

He also establishes 10 main characteristics of emotion:

  1. There is a distinctive pan-cultural signal for each emotion.
  2. There are distinctive, universal, facial expressions of emotion that can also be traced phylogenetically.
  3. Emotional expression involves multiple signals.
  4. The duration of emotion is limited.
  5. The timing of emotional expression reflects the details of a particular emotional experience.
  6. Emotional expression can be graded in intensity, reflecting variations in the strength of the subjective experience.
  7. Emotional expression can be totally inhibited.
  8. Emotional expressions can be convincingly simulated.
  9. Each emotion has pan-human commonalities in its elicitors.
  10. Each emotion has a pan-human pattern of the autonomous nervous system (ANS) and central nervous system (CNS) change.




Ownership in literature and clinical practice

Golden, A. (1997). Memoirs of a geisha: A novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

I am constantly hunting for insights on ownership in everything I read. For instance, recently I finished reading “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and couldn’t help thinking about what it means to be a slave (the protagonist of this novel is sold to an “okiya,” when she is eight years old, to become a geisha). The protagonist of this novel is always struggling to find her own authentic path in life, to decide what kind of life she wants to lead, where she wants to live, who she wants to share her life to (family, friends, loved ones). But she’s not the owner of her own life.

This character reminds me about some of my clients who, while being apparently free, are not owners of their bodies and their destinies. Once I asked one of them what her main goal for the new year was, and she replied: “to be the owner of my life”. Another one, noticing that he worked too much and for other people, and that even his business was registered under his ex-wife’s name, told me: “I feel depersonalized.” For this patient, to overcome depersonalization, to become a person again, meant becoming the proprietor of his possessions again (his efforts, his time, his business, his possessions).


Romantic love is universal

Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., Campbell, L., & Overall, N. C. (2015). Pair-Bonding, Romantic Love, and Evolution: The Curious Case of Homo sapiens. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(1), 20–36.

This is a paper about the evolutionary function of romantic love. Against common ideas that romantic love is purely a social and cultural construct, the authors show that some form of romantic love exists in virtually any culture on earth and that (as ancient myths and folk tales prove) it has existed since immemorial times.

Love is an important topic for a blog concerned with ownership, because loving relationships tend to be possessive. Even more, individuals in formal relationships (married, engaged, etc.) argue about their exclusive rights to the sexual enjoyment of their partners in a way that resembles an owner defending her exclusive rights to a certain property. Moreover, when they feel such exclusivity is threatened, they can be overwhelmed by emotions such as jealousy or rage.

The paper quotes several scholars (mainly Shaver and Hazan) who postulate three-dimensional theories of love that I find quite appealing. Romantic love is composed of attachment, caregiving and sex; or passion, intimacy and commitment. They also mention the striking similarity between the behavioral manifestations of parent–infant love and romantic love, which suggests that evolution may have borrowed these ancient bonding mechanisms, originally evolved in mammals to bond mothers to their offspring, and applied them to men and women in the context of romantic pair-bonding.

Warneken: Young children share the spoils after collaboration

Warneken, F., Lohse, K., Melis, A. P., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Young children share the spoils after collaboration. Psychological Science, 22(2), 267–73.

Interesting paper.

1) The authors postulate that the relationship between joint collaboration and sharing is crucial for understanding the origins of equality, both in ontogeny and phylogeny. Therefore, they investigate how children actively divide rewards after working for them in a collaborative problem-solving task.

Most studies on sharing involve windfall situations, in which resources are given to the children by a third party, with no work or effort involved. Moreover, many studies use a forced-choice paradigm with predefined allocation options, which does not allow for an assessment of how children themselves would actively negotiate over how to distribute resources with another person.

In contrast, Warneken et al.’s research is guided by the notion that people often have to work toward obtaining resources, and that they distribute those resources actively, rather than choosing individually between predefined options. Previous studies, they say, have not shown how children share resources in situations that might be the cradle of equality: actual joint collaborative activities with a social partner.

2) The experiment closely resembles sharing experiments with chimpanzees and other non-human primates. Warneken et al test children in dyads. Children have to perform a task together: they have to pull from both ends of a rope at the same time in order to bring a box close to them. In this way, they are able to get a reward (such as stickers or candy that have been placed in the box). In one condition, the box has two holes far apart, so that each child can get her reward without interference from the other participant. In a second (“clumped”) condition, the box has only one hole, and therefore only one child can access the rewards at a time.

3) Warneken et al. found that neither the reward type nor the opportunity to monopolize rewards in the clumped condition interfered with the children’s collaboration. 3 year-olds collaborate successfully in situations in which resources can be monopolized. The collaborative abilities of young children, compared with those of chimpanzees, are not constrained to the same extent by a tendency to monopolize resources.

Children predominately produced equal shares. They shared rewards equally most of the time, even when rewards could be monopolized more easily (clumped condition). At an age when children are just beginning to skillfully collaborate with peers, they already engage in sharing behavior that results in equitable outcomes.

4) What does it all mean? Competition over resources, the authors claim, is mitigated in human children (when compared with chimpanzees and other primates) by an emerging sense of equal sharing of the spoils, which enables successful collaboration even early in ontogeny. Thus, the authors claim that this study supports a Tomasello-like evolutionary hypothesis, according to which the emergence of cooperation is due not only to cognitive and behavioral skills, but also to a reduction in competition over resources. Competition over resources is mitigated in human children by an emerging sense of equal sharing of the spoils, which enables successful collaboration even early in ontogeny.

5) According to this study, children are capable of equitable distributions a very early age. Although many studies place the origins of equality at around 5, 6 or even 7 years of age, it all depends on how the concrete distribution problem is presented to the children. Warneken et al. present children with a collaborative, non-competitive situation. In addition, in this study the peer is present; the dyad works together in a problem solving activity (compare this with economic games that are played by a single present individual and an absent, anonymous, “invisible”). Even more, some of the dyads comprise children who know each other well, since they attend the same day-care center (they are not one-shot interactions, as in most economic games). All this seems to help even 3 year-olds to produce equitable outcomes early in development. The authors reach the conclusion that, perhaps, children learn to acknowledge each other’s right to gain equal resources in situations in which they collaborate to produce a mutually beneficial outcome that one person acting alone would not be able to achieve (this result is not proven by the experiment, in my opinion).

Paulus & Moore On Recipient-Dependent Sharing Behavior and Expectations

This study aimed at investigating developmental changes in 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children’s sharing behavior and their expectations of others’ sharing. Children were administered two tasks. In the Self task, they could distribute valuable items between themselves and a friend or a disliked peer; in the Other task, they were asked to predict how another agent would distribute valuable items between himself and a friend or a disliked peer. Additionally, whether sharing was costly for the agents or not was manipulated. Three results:

  1. Basic prosocial orientation: Children of all age groups behaved more prosocially and expected more prosocial behavior from another protagonist when the choice bore no cost. This is kind of an obvious result in view of the existing literature. Previous studies have shown that children act prosocially from early on and distribute resources equally between others. Children also have a corresponding expectation that others will behave prosocially. Even 2-year-olds show a sensitivity for equal distributions in a looking-time task. By 3 years, children showed a general disposition to expect that someone will share with others; at this age, children possess an undifferentiated expectation that humans behave prosocially toward each other.
  2. Recipient-dependent sharing: However, 4- and 5-year-old children, but not 3-year-old children, differentiated between a friend and a disliked peer as potential recipients in the sharing and the sharing expectation tasks. Thus, the study found developmental changes, with 3-year-old children not differentiating between different recipients (the 3-year-old children decided to act prosocially in the majority of trials) and 4- and 5-year-old children showing a clear differentiation. The 4- and 5-year-old children expected someone to share more with a friend than with a disliked peer, indicating specific expectations of how the relationship between an agent and another person affects the probability of showing prosocial behavior. This shows that the undifferentiated expectation that people generally share with others becomes differentiated in the course of the preschool period.
  3. Relationship between first-person behavior and third-person expectations: The same developmental trend was found for children’s own sharing and their expectations of other people’s sharing behavior, suggesting that both show a parallel developmental progression on a group level. Moreover, at 5 years of age, but not at 3 or 4 years, sharing behavior and sharing expectations were on a personal level closely related to each other. In other terms, a within-subject relation was found between 5-year-old children’s own sharing behavior and their sharing expectations. In conclusion, the relation between sharing behavior and sharing expectations emerges strongly at 5 years of age.