Levene et al. on ownership claims

Text #11

Levene, M., Starmans, C., & Friedman, O. (2015). Creation in judgments about the establishment of ownership. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 103–109. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2015.04.011

This is an essential paper for the field of the psychology of ownership.

Levene et al.’s study focuses on a fundamental topic. People come to own objects as result of specific actions, such as creating (or building) the object, discovering the object (thus being its first possessor), buying the object, etc. These are not mechanical or physical facts, but institutional acts performed inside a certain culture. The social norms and procedures that regulate ownership operate on a conceptual and linguistic level. In other words, human ownership it’s not just a matter of grabbing things, but also of arguing why something belongs to someone: “because I saw it first”, “because I made it myself”, “because dad gave it to me”, etc.

Now, such ownership claims can sometimes conflict. One person can say, “This is mine because I saw it first”, while another one can reply, “No, that is not yours, that is mine because I made it”. In such a case, which party has the most powerful argument? Perhaps some specific types of ownership claims are more decisive, fundamental or relevant than others. There might be a hierarchy of ownership principles according to which, in general, “creation” trumps “first possession” (or the other way around).

Some studies (both with children and with adults) have tried to clarify which ownership principles are usually acknowledged as the most relevant or decisive. There is a problem with such a task, though: it’s very hard to imagine situations in which principles are applied in a pure, uncontaminated manner. Rather, each principle tends to mix and confound itself with others, to some extent. For example, “creation typically implies prior possession and manipulation of the object, so it is difficult to be sure whether children’s ownership judgments were based on creation itself, rather than on these other factors”.

Levene et al.’s paper addresses these questions by means of four studies conducted with adults over the Internet. They use third person stories which involve some ingenious and novel ways of taking apart ownership principles in order to establish which one has precedence over the others. For example, in one story, a man throws paint at a board, thus creating a painting; while a second man picks the board. The first agent thus embodies pure creation (without possession) while the second embodies pure possession (without creation).

The authors conclude that creation is the most important and general principle, and that it affects people’s judgments of ownership more clearly than other competing principles such as first possession, invested labor or increases in the object’s value. “Creation trumps first possession as a mean of acquiring ownership”.

Another interesting implication of the paper is that they take apart creation and labor invested. I have always thought they were more or less the same. However, the act of creating something new (something that didn’t exist before this creative act) is related to, but can be distinguished from a) the idea of the thing to be created and b) the labor invested in the creation. Both the idea and the labor are essential for the creation, yet they are different from the creative act.

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