Monthly Archives: July 2016

Use, possession, ownership. An ongoing conversation with P. Kanngiesser

Recently Patricia Kanngiesser sent me a copy of the intro to her doctoral thesis, “Biological and Developmental Origins of Ownership Concepts.” I really enjoyed reading it. It’s extremely well written and well argued. She provides a number of new insights on the development of ownership with great clarity. It’s just brilliant.

One of the important topics Patricia addresses is the conceptual distinction between possession and property. She argues that, while possession presupposes physical proximity between possessors and their things, ownership holds even in the owner’s absence. Possession requires the simultaneous presence of owners and their objects, ownership does not.

Based on this distinction and on extant research on ownership in animals and humans (children and adults), she claims that animals show only possession-related behavior that is crucially dependent on an animal being in physical proximity to a thing. In other words, ownership is absent in animals; animals display rudimentary precursors of ownership-related behaviors only.

“While animals show attachment to things such as territories, food, and mates, evidence for recognizing possession and respecting others’ possessions irrespective of factors such as dominance rank or competitive advantages is sparse. Apart from one rare example of respect for possession of females in baboons, most respect for possession seems to derive from the fact that possessors manage to avoid dominant rivals (e.g. by carrying possession away). Finally, universal social rules regarding ownership are absent from animal societies. While attachment to things could form a biological basis for ownership-related behaviors in humans, an ownership concept that encompasses recognition and respect of ownership as well as a complex web of social rules is probably the unique product of a human socio-cultural environment.” (Patricia Kanngiesser, doctoral thesis).

Up to here I summarized Patricia’s position, and I agree with her. Now, it must be noted that even animal possession is not a two-term relationship (between an individual agent and a thing) but always presupposes a social context. There are possession conflicts because there are individuals competing for objects and for recognition, or for “prestige” as Philippe Rochat would say. PK notes that “about 75% of young children’s conflicts with peers revolve around the possession of objects” and that “21-month-olds often view a toy as more attractive after another child has named or touched it” (Hay & Ross, 1982). Objects become desirable because they are desired by other children; once a child children obtains an object, she wants to be recognized as possessor by other children; she now has exclusive access to the object and can exclude other children. As PK writes, “it is thus conceivable that conflicts concerning the possession of objects are also driven by social motives such as establishing social relationships and exerting social influence.” This, again, suggests not a dual relationship agent-object but at least a triadic relationship agent-object-agent.

Furthermore, PK also notes that “prior possession presents an advantage in conflicts over objects”, a finding corroborated many times both with young children and with some animal species. Now, if current possessors tend to win possession conflicts, it’s because other agents can identify them as possessors. Which again suggests not a dual relation agent-object but a triadic relation where other agents can identify possessors and interact with them accordingly. In this incipient relationship between a non-possessor and a possessor, even if “universal rules” are still absent (as PK argues), there is something like a proto-rule at work: perhaps for strategic reasons that can be modeled in terms of game theory (costs of trying to take an object from a possessor are high), perhaps for efficiency reasons (groups are more stable when possessors are not attacked and conflicts are minimized), current possession is respected, which might be a precursor of institutional or conventional rules such as the prior possession rule (which establishes that prior possession is a justification for ownership).

Therefore, I stick with my position that you need to discriminate three different categories:

– Use: dual relationship between an agent and an object (food, toy, instrument, etc.)

– Possession: triadic relationship agent-object-agent that requires one agent (called the possessor) physically controlling the object, while the other agent is excluded from this relationship. In this scenario, some proto-rules start to play out.

– Ownership: a relationship between agent and object that is not based in physical control but in normative rules (“universal” rules, as PK calls them). The title of owner gives the owner privileged access to the object and, in general, a number of rights and duties.


Psychological ownership

Pierce, J. L., Kostova, T., & Dirks, K. T. (2002). The state of psychological ownership: integrating and extending a century of research abstract. Review of General Psychology, 7(314), 1–35.

Remarkable article on the psychology of ownership. This is something different from what I’m used to; it’s something I wasn’t expecting: a general psychology approach to possessive behavior that aims at taking into account biological and cultural, individual and social, affective and cognitive components.

By “psychological ownership” the authors understand: a) our sense of possession, what we feel and mean when we say “mine”, b) the object of ownership (or “target”) that becomes part of the extended self of the owner, c) a cognitive-affective complex.

The authors distinguish between the motives or roots of ownership, and the routes through which psychological ownership emerges. The motives or roots include:

  1. efficacy and effectance: possessions are important to individuals because they are instrumental for exercising control over the physical environment and over people.
  2. self-identity: possessions serve as symbolic expressions of the self.
  3. having a place to dwell: importance of having a secure base, a refuge, a shelter in the world.

My only criticism is that sometimes the language of the paper is somewhat vague. Ownership is a word with many uses and varied meanings. We may feel that we own a ball, a car, an idea, a job, a certain position in the family, in an organization or even a nation. Is the meaning of “owning” the same in all these cases? The authors claim that “when individuals feel ownership for a social entity (e.g., family, group, organization, or nation) they are likely to engage in citizenship behaviors toward that entity”. Yet we usually say that we belong to the group, organization or nation, not that it belongs to us. The meaning of belonging, owning and possession are not probably the same as when we talk about owning an object. The construct “ownership” is more complex and multifaceted than the authors assume; the meaning of ownership varies with the target of ownership and other factors. This potential criticism is not discussed in the paper.

Overall, an interesting and thought provoking article. In addition, the authors have done an extensive review of the literature and there are many intriguing quotations. For example, I should check W. James (1890) who apparently establishes a relationship between “me” and that which is considered “mine”.