Monthly Archives: March 2018

Vondervoort & Friedman – Ownership of objects and ownership of one’s own body

Van de Vondervoort, J. W., & Friedman, O. (2015). Parallels in preschoolers’ and adults’ judgments about ownership rights and bodily rights. Cognitive Science.

Another interesting article by the prolific Ori Friedman and his team. They have produced a sustained series of very focused studies, guided by the conviction that ownership can be explored within a cognitive framework, and that our knowledge about the development of ownership can be built piece by piece. They divide the field into small issues and take them up one by one.

The paper starts by asking interesting and relevant questions about the relationship between ownership of objects and ownership of one’s own body.

Young children appreciate ownership rights from very early on (around 2 or 3 years of age, depending on the author and research method). They recognize ownership rights before they appreciate rights in other domains. Bodily rights (rights to control one’s own body) also seem to appear early in development. Based on legal theory, one might hypothesize that these two kinds of rights are closely related (remember John Locke’s justification of the origin of private property?). One possible question, then, is to what extent ownership rights and bodily rights are related to each other, both in legal theory and in cognitive development. Do they follow from the same principles, but are applied to two different kinds of entities? Or, alternatively, do they belong to completely different conceptual and normative domains?

The paper, then, examines whether people make similar evaluations when considering the acceptability of actions performed on owned property and body parts. Preschoolers (Experiment 1) and adults (Experiment 2) were presented with scenarios about a boy and a girl, and they evaluated how good or bad the boy’s actions were. The scenarios varied in whether the target of the boy’s action was an owned object or a body part, in whether the target belonged to the boy or to a girl, and in whether the girl approved of the boy’s action.

The results: preschool-aged children and adults responses did not vary when evaluating the acceptability of harmless actions targeting owned property and body parts.  The same pattern of responses was observed for both cases (scenarios targeting body parts and scenarios targeting owned property).

Evaluations were influenced by two other manipulations: whether the target belonged to the agent or another person, and whether that other person approved of the action. The researchers found that, when the other person approved of the action, participants’ judgments were positive regardless of who the target belonged to. In contrast, when that person disapproved, judgments depended on who the target belonged to (owner – non-owner). These findings show that young children grasp the importance of approval or consent for ownership rights and bodily rights. Both children and adults seem to understand that, in scenarios where the girl disapproved of the boy’s actions, he violated her ownership rights when he acted on her property (or body), but not when he acted on his own property (or body).

The study lends support to the idea that people’s notions of ownership rights are related to their appreciation of bodily rights.

Differently from other, more straightforward and elegant studies by Ori Friedman and his colleagues, the method used here is somewhat complicated: the 5-grades complex scale used to measure children’s responses (considering they were working with 4 y.o.’s) ;the fact that the active agent is always a boy and the passive evaluator is always a girl (which probably creates a gender confound); the fact that children are have to react to the character’s opinion with their own opinion (in a third person perspective)… This complicated setup obscures the results to some extent.



Ownership and emotions in toddlers and preschoolers

Pesowski, M. L., & Friedman, O. (2015). Preschoolers and toddlers use ownership to predict basic emotions. Emotion (Washington, D.C.).



This is a very simple and elegant study that shows that toddlers and preschoolers appreciate how ownership affects emotions. The researchers used a couple of straightforward scripts to present children with situations involving transgression of ownership rights, and to ask about the emotions elicited in the characters. For example, a character left a teddy bear on a bench and, upon returning, found her teddy bear (vs. someone else’s teddy bear, in the other condition) missing. In another situation, a character saw another character using her toy.

The researchers concluded that preschoolers and toddlers appreciate how ownership influences emotions.  Children understood that an owner would be more saddened by the disappearance of an object belonging to her as compared with the disappearance of someone else’s property.

The authors believe these findings are “striking” because in two (out of three) experiments the violation of ownership rights was harmless and did not involve an overtly negative outcome. In my words, children understand that the characters are sad or mad not because of an “objective” damage, harm or loss, but because of the violation of their rights. A child might be upset by the very fact that someone is touching her toy. This territoriality is at the core of the phenomenon of ownership. The paper seems to suggest that, already at two, children master the fundamentals of the institution of ownership. They know the rules of the game.

The authors also think their results are significant because “few previous studies show that 2-year-olds can predict emotions”, and because “no previous studies found that 2-year-olds are sensitive to other people’s ownership rights.” In particular, they refer to a well-known paper by Rossano, Rakoczy, & Tomasello (2011) that claims that 3-year-olds, but not 2-year-olds, defend third-person ownership rights.



Pesowski, M. L., & Friedman, O. (2015). Preschoolers and toddlers use ownership to predict basic emotions. Emotion (Washington, D.C.).

Rossano, F., Rakoczy, H., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Young children’s understanding of violations of property rights. Cognition, 121(2), 219–227.