Monthly Archives: September 2015

To own your own life

Texts #16 & #17

Here is a brief comment about a couple of books I’ve read lately. I’ve come to the conclusion that the topic of ownership is underrated, and that an examination of our lives helps us recognize that ownership is central to our everyday existence and to our human condition in general. To own oneself seems to be the core of our existence as persons. Before we can become masters of the objects around us, we need to take possession of ourselves. Self-ownership is something that we tend to take for granted (and therefore we don’t talk about it).

The intuition of the centrality of self-ownership is presupposed by different philosophical and psychological texts. It can be traced in Freud’s doctrine of narcissism and self-eroticism,  Heidegger’s concept of Eigentlichkeit, Plato’s (and Kant’s) insistence on self-government, Nietzsche’s comments on freedom. All these authors seem to believe that the individual needs to own herself, to govern herself, to be her own sovereign, in order to exist. (Depending on the author and the context, this might be: to have a body, to be a person, to be authentic, to be free, just, or happy).

Literature also plays with self-ownership… and the lack thereof. For example, there is Selva Almada’s Chicas Muertas, which narrates the murders of four young women in Argentina in the 80s, and the author’s journey to find traces of their lives and reconstruct their deaths. Above all, Almada tries desperately to recover the victims’ voice. This makes you realize that, in the case of gender violence and extreme abuse, the victim loses control over basic things we take for granted in our everyday life: her voice, her body, her life. Someone else has taken hold of those basic aspects of a person’s existence.

To mention a very different book now, but one also written by a young contemporary and talented woman, there’s Nicole Krauss’ the history of love, which tells the story of Leo Gursky (and Alma, and her mom and brother…). Leo is a man that has lost everything, basically as a consequence of the Holocaust. He has lost his village, his country, his family, the woman he loved, the book he wrote, the contact with his only child. The result is half-a-man, a man that sees his own existence as diminished because of his losses. A man that is alive but who doesn’t exist, because he owns nothing.

I don’t want to elaborate about these points excessively, but please read the books and you’ll see I’m right.


Chicas muertas:

History of love:

Children value ideas over labor

Text #15

Li, V., Shaw, A., & Olson, K. R. (2013). Ideas versus labor : What do children value in artistic creation ? COGNITION, 127(1), 38–45. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2012.11.001

The procedure is simple: have an adult direct a child making a work of art (so that the adult is contributing the guiding ideas while the child is contributing “brute” labor). Then, reverse the roles: have the child supply the guiding idea while the adult follows directions and executes the work of art. Finally, have the child chose which final product she prefers to take home with her: the one that incorporated her effort or the one that reflects her idea?

In a second experiment, the researchers used a similar situation but now they tricked the subjects so that children believed that the drawing contained their ideas when it actually contained the adult’s idea (and vice versa, they believed that the drawing which they had actually created while being directed by an adult was the one that incorporated their ideas).

In a third experiment, they used a third person narrative to lay out a comparison between someone who contributes labor and someone who contributes ideas to the creation of an object. Who should keep the resulting product?

These studies demonstrated that by 6 years old, children value ideas over physical labor. Six year olds systematically chose pictures that contained their own ideas over pictures that contained their labor, even when they were merely tricked into believing that they had come up with the idea for a picture that they had not. Further, 6 year olds demonstrated a general appreciation of ideas – they not only valued their own ideas (Studies 1 and 2), but also privileged idea creators over laborers in a property dispute (Study 3). In contrast, 4 year olds appear to have preferred pictures that contained their specific idiosyncratic preferences. Four year olds preferred pictures containing their ideas, but also their idiosyncratic preferences in Study 1 and pictures they believed contained their labor but also their idiosyncratic preferences in Study 2. Further supporting this possibility, in Study 3 where idiosyncratic preferences could not play a role in selection, 4 year olds showed no bias for either a third-party idea creator or laborer. Six year olds, by way of contrast, sided with the idea creators in third-party case, even when they personally had no connection to the idea.

The age effect in these studies may exist because 6, but not 4 year olds, understand that ideas are valuable and can thus be owned.

In conclusion, the tendency to value ideas is present in childhood and may emerge between 4 and 6 years old. 6 year olds value ideas over labor even when making third-party judgments, favoring those who only contributed ideas as more deserving of a picture over those who only contributed labor.

Kanngiesser & Hood on children’s understanding of ownership rights for newly made objects

Text #14

Kanngiesser, P., & Hood, B. M. (2014). Young children’s understanding of ownership rights for newly made objects. Cognitive Development, 29(1), 30–40.

This is a great paper. To begin with, Kanngiesser & Hood make a beautiful, succinct summary of the state of the art in the field of ownership development. I feel tempted to paste it here:

“Infants begin to show an understanding of ownership relationships between 1.5 and 2 years of age when they first use possessive pronouns like “mine” and “yours” (Hay, 2006; Tomasello, 1998) and identify owners of familiar objects such as their mother’s toothbrush (Fasig, 2000). From two years of age children infer ownership of unfamiliar objects based on first possession, attributing ownership to the person who possessed an object first (Friedman & Neary, 2008). At 2.5 years of age they are able to learn ownership relationships between out of view objects and their owners (Blake & Harris, 2011). These abilities become more refined at three years of age, when children use object history to infer ownership (Friedman, Van de Vondervoort, Defeyter, & Neary, 2013; Gelman, Manczak, & Noles, 2012) and apply ownership rules such as ascribing ownership to a person who grants/denies permission to use an object (Neary, Friedman, & Burnstein, 2009) or who invested effort in making a new object (Kanngiesser, Gjersoe, & Hood, 2010). Yet, not until four years of age do children prioritize verbal ownership statements over physical possession of objects (Blake, Ganea, & Harris, 2012). Taken together, these findings suggest that children’s understanding of ownership relationships manifests at two years of age and becomes more sophisticated during the preschool years.”

The previous paragraph deals with “ownership conditions,” i.e. how children determine who owns what. Then they use a separate paragraph to describe the state of the art concerning “ownership implications,” i.e. children’s understanding of ownership rights.

“Relating owners to their property, however, is only one ability necessary for developing a concept of ownership. Few studies have directly investigated at what age children start to appreciate the normative implications of ownership, i.e., that it is associated with certain rights that are respected and reinforced by a community. By age two children frequently defend their possessions (or possessions they were told were theirs) against take-over attempts by others (Eisenberg-Berg, Haake, & Bartlett, 1981; Hay & Ross, 1982) and begin to show respect for others’ ownership of objects (Ross, 1996), providing some evidence for an early understanding of an owner’s exclusive access to his or her property. In contrast, studies presenting children with third party ownership stories have shown that it is not until age 4–5 that children appreciate different ownership rights (Kim & Kalish, 2009) or differentiate between legitimate (gift giving) and illegitimate (stealing) transfers of ownership (Blake & Harris, 2009). Yet, more recently, Rossano and colleagues (2011) demonstrated that 2- and 3-year olds protested against property rights violations when their own property was at stake, but that only 3-year-olds also interfered when a third party’s ownership rights were violated. This suggests that by age 3 children are already aware of the normative structure of some rights for personal property, i.e., that property rights do not apply only to one’s own possessions but to others’ possessions, too.”

The paper then describes two experiments. In Experiment 1, they have a puppet taking away an object the child has just created out of raw materials provided by the researcher–or, alternatively,  that a third person (an experimenter) has just made, and monitor children’s protests. After registering children’s spontaneous protests (or lack thereof) they explicitly asked children who the object’s owner was. Experiment 2 is similar to experiment one except that the objects at stake are raw materials and not newly made objects.


“ We found that 2- and 3-year-olds protested when their own objects were at stake, making spontaneous references to ownership when protesting (e.g., “Mine.”). Thus, young children do not only appreciate their ownership rights with respect to personal property items (Rossano et al., 2011), but also with respect to newly made objects. Children’s ownership claims regarding their objects were specific to the investment of effort (Kanngiesser et al., 2010), as children who had only played with unchanged materials displayed very little ownership protest. Overall, our results support the view that by three years of age, children not only can connect owners to property (Blake & Harris, 2011; Fasig, 2000; Friedman & Neary, 2008), but also show appreciation of at least some ownership rights (Rossano et al., 2011). In contrast to other studies, young children in our study intervened little against the puppet’s attempts to keep a third party’s objects.”

Kanngiesser & Hood also conclude that “most 3-year-olds in our study recognized a third party’s ownership of her newly made objects when they were asked direct ownership questions, suggesting that 3-year-olds may have lacked the motivation rather than the competence to protest against violations of a third party’s ownership rights”, so it can be argued that “3-year-olds viewed the investment of effort into creating new objects – but not the mere handling of materials – as sufficient for establishing ownership of previously un-owned materials.”

One might argue, however, that the key factor here is creation (which involves both having an idea about what to make, and actually investing effort in creating an object) and not simply invested labor or effort. (As Levene et al make clear in Levene, M., Starmans, C., & Friedman, O. (2015). Creation in judgments about the establishment of ownership. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 103–109.)

Finally, “The most remarkable finding in our studies is that 3-year-olds are capable of attributing ownership to a third party and yet they seldom intervene when the third party’s possessions are at stake. There are two possible explanations. Three-year-olds’ understanding of the social consequences of ownership (such as violations of ownership rights) may lag behind their ability to track ownership relationships. Two-year-olds track ownership relationships (Fasig, 2000; Hay, 2006), but at age 3 children already interfere in ownership conflicts on behalf of a third party (Rossano et al., 2011). Moreover 3-year-olds have been found to regularly intervene in a variety of situations involving violations of conventional and moral norms (Rakoczy et al., 2008; Schmidt, Rakoczy, & Tomasello, 2012; Vaish et al., 2011). Our discrepant findings thus may not reflect different developmental trajectories but rather different task demands. While answering ownership questions only requires the child to point to or to name a person, intervention in ownership violations requires an assessment of the social situation and, importantly, a motivation to act on behalf of a third party.”

Ownership, object history and endowment effect in 2 and 3 year olds – Gelman

Text #13

Gelman, S. a., Manczak, E. M., & Noles, N. S. (2012). The nonobvious basis of ownership: Preschool children trace the history and value of owned objects. Child Development, 83(5), 1732–1747. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01806.x

The paper presents two studies with 2 year-olds, 3 year-olds, and adults. The first study addresses the use of object history to determine ownership, while the second studies the endowment effect. The experimental design is very simple: assign objects (from certain object sets) to individuals, and then ask subjects a) which object belongs to whom, b) which object they like best.

1) Ownership is abstract… or nonobvious.

One a conceptual level, it is interesting that this paper emphasizes the fact that ownership is abstract. I have previously used that word, abstract, to refer to ownership in a recent paper of my own. But, actually, that’s not the word that Gelman et al. prefer to use when speaking of ownership; they describe it as nonobvious rather than abstract. Here’s what they say:

  • Ownership is of interest because it is a cognitive construction, not materially present in the owned object. As Snare (1972, p. 200) aptly stated, ‘‘[A] stolen apple doesn’t look any different from any other apple.’’
  • A mature concept of ownership includes an understanding that proximity, perceptual or functional features, and desirability, although potent factors, cannot by themselves determine who owns what. In other words, ownership is an invisible quality that can be traced by consideration of object history rather than by inspection of the properties of the object.

I don’t know why the talk about “nonobvious” rather than “abstract”. Abstract seems to be the common-sense word to describe invisible, relational features.

2) Object history.

In order to assess who owns what, human agents reconstruct the history of each individual object (“first I found it there, then I gave it to her, then she placed it in that red box… etc.). “Given the centrality of object history, it becomes particularly important to track where an object moves over time.”

“Experiment 1 demonstrates that 3-year-olds, like adults, construe ownership as a nonobvious property that does not reduce to outward perceptual or functional features”. “This doesn’t seem to be the case for 2-year-olds, who in certain experimental situations and with certain sets of objects do not seem to use object history in their ownership judgments.” “The present studies demonstrate that children as young as 3 years of age spontaneously attend to object history to determine ownership.”

3) Endowment effect

The authors claim that they are the first to demonstrate an endowment effect in children 2 and 3 years of age. “The present findings suggest that positive evaluation of and preference for one’s own possessions is a basic cognitive disposition, even before children have experience with conventional economic transactions.”

This is interesting. By the way, why do they say that the disposition to value one’s own stuff is “cognitive”? They call it a “cognitive disposition”. But you can make the case that such a basic way of being of humans and perhaps other species is not appropriately described as “cognitive”. We are dealing with something that is as emotional as it is cognitive. We value and defend what we are and what we have. This phenomenon (the endowment effect) might be linked even with territorial behaviors. I think there are deep existential, cultural and evolutionary motivations in this “will to possess” and to value what one has. The word “cognitive” would suggest a conceptual frame, an innate category, some “cold” rule or feature of our cognitive system. It’s not proved that that’s the best description of what’s going on here.

“Ownership confers special value on objects, across the life span. This finding extends beyond prior work in demonstrating that preference is for the particular object assigned (not just for that type of object).”

4) Endowment effect precedes object history tracking

“The most striking developmental change concerned the comparison between the two experiments. Three-year-olds and adults distinguish ownership from likability, reporting that they owned objects even when they did not like them (e.g., the participant-plain items). In contrast, 2-year-olds show no difference between the ownership task (Experiment 1) and the endowment task (Experiment 2). In other words, 2-year-olds conflate ownership with desirability, thus failing to grasp that a toy they do not like actually belongs to them.

5) Mutual exclusivity

“Participants showed a mutual exclusivity bias concerning ownership, rarely assigning an object to Zippy [a fictional character they introduced in some situations] that had already been assigned to another owner. Mutual exclusivity is a principle that young children adhere to in their word extensions (Markman, 1989; Markman, Wasow, & Hansen, 2003), and it is notable that this same principle applies outside the realm of labeling.”

One might speculate about mutual exclusivity as a common feature of ownership and language. Perhaps this is an innate rule or constraint of our cognitive system, that is applied to different domains as language and ownership? Or perhaps mutual exclusivity as a principle co-evolved with human society and the rules of ownership? There are theories that derive human’s symbolic functioning from social life, and in particular from the institution of ownership. Mutual exclusivity is essential for the institution of ownership: the very meaning of something being mine is that I, not you, control it; if something is mine it’s not yours. In order to claim something as your own, you need to put a mark on the object, or make a gesture, or use some other symbolic means, that might be at the very origin of the semiotic function in general and language in particular.