Monthly Archives: March 2015

Children think that creative labor justifies ownership transfers (Kanngiesser)

Text #10

Kanngiesser, P., Gjersoe, N., & Hood, B. M. (2010). The effect of creative labor on property-ownership transfer by preschool children and adults. Psychological Science : A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21(9), 1236–1241.

Another important study by Kanngiesser.

Let me first paste the abstract:

“We investigated whether preschool children and adults believe that ownership of one person’s property is transferred to a second person following the second person’s investment of creative labor in that property. In our study, an experimenter and a participant borrowed modeling-clay objects from each other to mold into new objects. Participants were more likely to transfer ownership to the second individual after he or she invested creative labor in the object than after any other manipulations (holding the object, making small changes to it). This effect was significantly stronger in preschool children than in adults. Duration of manipulation had no effect on property-ownership transfer. Changes in the object’s identity acted only as a secondary cue for children. We conclude that ownership is transferred after an investment of creative labor and that determining property ownership may be an intuitive process that emerges in early childhood.”

First reflection: even though from our theoretical point of view we like to distinguish between things like “creation”, “discovery” or “transformation though the investment of labor”, maybe these are not too different from each other from the point of view of the child. That is, in all these cases, there is an agent that develops a purposeful and laborious activity on the object that is transformed as a result; and that is transformed into something that is either beautiful, or useful, or has value in some way. So children (and humans in general) understand that value is created through an agent’s activity. (This is Locke’s thesis, and it’s also part of our common sense). Once you think about it in this terms, it makes sense that children don’ pay attention to things like “duration of possession” or minor manipulations of the object; they don’t follow such mechanistic criteria, they look at transformations that make sense.

This paper, therefore, does not belong to the topic of “ownership transfer” but to the topic of “ownership claims”, in my opinion. If you take the duck and make an ashtray, you might say that the ownership of the play dough was transferred. But you can also say that you destroyed the duck and created an ashtray. You are the owner of the object you created (ownership principle).

“When asked to justify their property ownership decisions, 3-year-olds never mentioned creative labor, whereas 4-year-olds justified ownership transfers with explicit reference to creative investment. Moreover, we found that for children, the main component of creative labor was the invested effort, and the secondary component of creative labor was changing an object’s identity.” “We found that this transfer overruled an established bias to assign ownership to the individual who first possessed an object.”

“We found that children transferred ownership more frequently after making small changes to another person’s object than after possessing the same object, a result suggesting that children’s ownership judgments may even be finely calibrated to the amount of effort invested in an object.”

Creative labor has an effect on ownership judgments in adults, but the effect is less pronounced in adults than in children.

Kanngiesser on children’s application of the merit principle

Text #9

Kanngiesser, P., & Warneken, F. (2012). Young Children Consider Merit when Sharing Resources with Others. PLoS ONE, 7(8).

This is a great paper. It tackles the classic problem of merit as a principle of fairness (or of distributive justice): rewards should be distributed according to how much someone contributed to a task.

Kanngiesser and Warneken did two studies about children’s application of the merit principle. They made children play against a puppet at a game of collecting (“fishing”) coins that were later exchanged for rewards. They varied the work-contribution of both partners by manipulating how many coins each partner collected. Three- and five-year-olds kept, on average, significantly more stickers for themselves in the more-work condition than in the less-work condition. Children, in other words, kept fewer stickers in trials in which they had contributed less than in trials in which they had contributed more than the partner, showing that they took merit into account. Therefore, it seems that three- and five year- old children already use merit to share resources with others, even when sharing is costly for the child.

Although this appears to show that children take merit into account to calibrate their responses, it should also be noted that children almost never give away more than half of the stickers when the partner had worked more. “Even though children were clearly able to consider different work contributions, this tendency was constrained by a self-serving bias.” Thus, merit-based sharing is also mixed with or calibrated by the egotistic, self-serving bias documented by Rochat and many others.

The paper also presents a similar, second study, that shows that children’s sharing behavior is not just determined by their own absolute work-effort. Rather, children appear to take into account their own and their partner’s relative contributions when allocating resources. (Therefore, there  is some kind of elemental proportional or relational thinking here). “Young children can use comparisons between work-contribution to allocate resources.”

Esther Perel and ownership

Text #8

I’ve recently finished reading Esther Perel’s Mating in intimacy (Perel, 2006). What a great book. Highly recommended, not only to couples’ therapists or even psychotherapists. All psychologists should read it. Her view of relationships and particularly of sexuality in the contemporary world is really revolutionary. The only thing I don’t completely buy are her interventions in couples’ therapy: some of them sound as too theoretical, and I don’t think such verbal and general explanations can make people change. Usually, they just become rationalizations.

What does her book have to do with the stuff I discuss in this blog? Not much. But let me emphasize that I don’t consider ownership as only a social phenomenon that children need to learn about. In other words, I don’t consider ownership just as a topic within social cognition. (For example: how children develop heuristics to understand what belongs to whom). Ownership is not outside the child; ownership is not a source of input for children’s cognitive system. Not only, at least. The socio-cognitive approach reveals an important aspect of ownership, but not the most fundamental.

I’m rather interested in the experiential, existential side of it: why is it that humans need to possess stuff and to be acknowledged by others as legitimate owners; how do individuals clash with each other when competing for possession; how they become attached to their property. This is the kind of questions Rousseau used to ask, and that Rochat (Rochat, 2014) also tackles in his recent book on possession.

And Perel’s book does teach us something about it: that people can have a satisfactory sexual life only when they own it: when they own their bodies, their erotic imagination, their capacity to love.

Perel, E. (2006). Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic. HarperCollins.

Rochat, P. (2014). Origins of Possession: Owning and Sharing in Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.