Kim, S., & Kalish,
C. W. (2009). Children’s ascriptions of property rights with changes of
ownership. Cognitive Development, 24(3), 322–336.
article starts with a claim that I fully endorse: that ownership is an
institutional (as opposed to a “brute”) fact. The term “institutional” is here obviously
used in the sense it has in John Searle’s philosophy of social reality.
However, the authors distort this concept of ownership as an institution in that they make ownership depend
almost exclusively on people’s intentions. As they put it: “Giving someone an
object to hold, to borrow, or “for keeps” may all involve the same physical
motions. It is the intentions of the parties involved that determine whether
ownership has been transferred.”
Searle’s is not a subjectivist approach. Intentionality is
an important aspect of institutions, yes, but intentions are not free-floating
entities. Thus, for a sale to take place, it’s not enough to have the intention to sell, one also needs to
meet a number of objective conditions (such as being the previous owner of the
object one is selling) as well as performing certain acts in a proper manner (stating
that one wants to sell an item; receiving the money and handing out the item;
performing certain speech acts, etc.) Intentions are an aspect of a broader,
social reality, and they are interpreted according to social practices. Social
institutions are not made of human intentions only; they are the product of constitutive rules (Searle’s term),
which determine the meaning of certain actions. The paper’s reduction of
institutions to intentions is an error frequently observed in psychologists.
Another problem with this paper is the hazy discussion of
previous research in the introduction. The authors quote several sources that
connect the concepts of current possession, first possession and ownership, but
the precise meaning of such connections is not clear. Thus, they quote Shantz
(1981), who claims that possession is “nine-tenths of a law,” a saying that
suggests that a possessor has an advantageous legal position when claiming
property, without explaining how this phrase applies to children and the
development of ownership. They also quote Furby (1978), who found that “owners
having or keeping the object” was “central to definitions of ownership
throughout elementary school years,” establishing again a vague relationship
between possession and ownership. What does “central to” mean? Are they
implying that children confuse or mix up possession and ownership? Or,
alternatively, that children distinguish one from the other, while justifying
ownership claims by referring to current physical control of the object? Further,
the authors quote Cram and Ng (1989), who found that 4–5-year-old children’s
conception of ownership was related to
physical contact. What does “related to” mean here? Over and over again, they
suggest a close relationship between possession and ownership but do not
clarify how this relationship operates in children.
To make things more confusing, they then proceed to quote
research demonstrating that children use previous possession to justify current
ownership. “Preschool children recognize that ownership is more than immediate
physical contact. (…) Toddlers and preschoolers accept, “I had it first” as a
basis for settling property disputes, and initial possessors typically prevail”.
But then, which one is more important to justify ownership: current possession
or previous possession? How do previous and current possession relate to each
other, according to extant research? To sum up, the introduction provides a
very confusing developmental account of the relationships between previous
possession, current possession and ownership.
They then tackle their specific topic: property transfers. “Recent
evidence suggests that 4-year-olds are beginning to accept transfer of rights
at least in one highly ritualized context: receiving a birthday present.”
However, “studies have not carefully articulated the criteria for establishing
that ownership was actually transferred. In particular, conclusions that
children do understand transfer are based on their assigning some rights to
receivers” but without the givers losing those rights. “Both buyers and gift
recipients can take the goods home.”
Apparently, then, young children accept that recipients gain
property rights but deny that givers relinquish rights. If so, then young children
understand ownership transfers as a kind of lending. The recipient is allowed
to use the property, but the original owner retains ultimate control. A true
understanding of ownership transfer, however, requires that original owners be
seen as losing their original property rights. The authors propose to use the
judgment that the recipient has a stronger claim on the property than the
original owner as the key indicator of a true transfer of ownership.
Each participant heard three stories about conflict between
an owner and a non-owner over doing something with an object. The conflicts
varied according to the types of transfer at stake: finding, borrowing, selling.
Participants were asked about the characters’ right to novel use, re-categorization,
alteration, lending (to a third person), and discarding the object. For
example, in the discard condition they were asked: “Who should get to decide
whether throw away the hat or not?”
The researchers found that adults and older children judged
that original owners had control in the finding and borrowing stories, and that
new owners (buyers) had control in the selling story. Younger children showed a similar pattern but
were less consistent in privileging new owners in the selling story.
In owner–finder and owner–borrower stories, participants of
all ages reliably assigned control to the owner. Transfers of physical
possession do not constitute changes in ownership/property rights. Agents who
found or borrowed property did not acquire the rights to use it against the wishes
of the original owners. This is the case for practically all participants.
Now, older children and adults reliably indicated that new
owners (buyers) could control property against the wishes of original owners
(sellers). Young children, however, selected owners significantly less often in
conflicts with sellers than in conflicts with borrowers or finders. That is, a
person receiving ownership via transfer does not have the same rights to
control property as someone retaining original ownership. Even younger children,
however, treated buyers as having more control than finders or borrowers. They
saw buyers as owners that are not granted unlimited control of their property.
Experiment 2 is similar to experiment 1, but now
participants evaluated two instances of the same dispute, involving the same
people, actions, and objects: once before and once after a transfer of
ownership occurred. Instead of different types of actions (lending, discarding,
etc.) here researchers used just one alteration of the object (cutting out a
magazine, coloring a picture) and varied the agents’ ability (good at coloring
vs. bad at coloring). Experiment 2 directly examined ownership transfer—losing
and gaining ownership rights.
It was found that, with increasing age, participants more
reliably judged that owners could assert control of their property against the
wishes of non-owners.
Preschool-aged children showed one of two patterns. 1) They
either appreciated owners’ rights or 2)
they rejected any attempt to alter the objects.
1) When young children endorsed property rights, they did so
by using the same criteria as adults and older children. Young children were
not likely to assign control to original owners. Current ownership, whether
initial or transferred, was the only thing that enabled control of property.
Children do not indiscriminately adopt a “first-owner” principle, nor do they
respond according to the intrinsic value of proposed actions. Rather, young
children keep track of the ownership across transfers and assign rights accordingly,
at least in the context of gift-giving.
2) The other response pattern was a denial that any
character could exert control of an object over the objections of another. Thus,
some younger children rejected all proposals. They denied control to original
owners as well as recipient owners. Whenever young children assigned control to
one actor rather than another they did so in the same way as did adults (pattern
1); that is, only ownership status was ever used as the basis for assigning property
A majority of participants (including all adults) reliably indicated that an owner could control their
property against the wishes of a non-owner. Participants responded that
non-owners ought to defer to the wishes of owners regarding the use,
alteration, lending, and disposal of those objects.
The researchers found that young children’s judgments are consistent
with a “first-owner” model to a limited extent. Preschoolers often judged that
initial owners retained some rights to their property; the rights of buyers or
recipients of gifts were limited. For this reason, young children were less
consistent in assigning owners control of property than were adults. However,
the results also indicate that young children agreed with older children and
adults in their identifications of ownership. They designated recipients as the
owners in cases of gift-giving and buying, but not in cases of borrowing or
The present study suggests developmental continuity in
identification of ownership, although young children may have different ideas
about what owners can do with their property, that is, they apply the concept of
property and coordinate property rights together with other considerations such
as outcomes, fairness, object attachment and interpersonal relationships
differently from adults. The major difference between children and adults seems
to be that adults have most clearly distinguished ownership rights from other
considerations that affect decisions about property.
There is also the problem of narrative context. The stories
may have involved more than ownership rights. Many young children may not
distinguish what owners may and may not do from other considerations, such as
what friends may and may not do. Structuring the narratives in a different way
may yield quite different results.
One problem: other studies have found a strong first possessor
bias in children, and claim that children do not fully understand ownership
transfers until they are 10 years-old. Who is right then? Check: https://mind-cult.com/2019/02/16/exploring-the-first-possessor-bias-in-children-nole-keil/