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.”


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