Category Archives: ownership transfer

Property transfers and property rights. Kim & Kalish.

Kim, S., & Kalish, C. W. (2009). Children’s ascriptions of property rights with changes of ownership. Cognitive Development, 24(3), 322–336. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.COGDEV.2009.03.004

The 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.

Experiment 1

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

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 rights.

General conclusion

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 finding.

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/

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Exploring the first possessor bias in children. Nole & Keil.

Noles, N. S., & Keil, F. C. (2019). Exploring the first possessor bias in children. PLoS ONE, 14(1), 1–13. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209422

Very interesting and insightful paper. The authors set out to explore an apparent contradiction: on the one hand, very young children (even 2-year-olds in some studies) are adept at linking property to owners. On the other, there is research that reports that children systematically conserve property with the first possessor, even after a legitimate transfer of the property to a second possessor (e.g., after a sale, a present).

This study tests children, ages 7 through 10, for the presence of a first possessor bias in first- and third-person situations, and for different types of property transfers (gift, sale, loss, etc.)

A first experiment used third-person scripts depicting different types of property transfers. The authors found that seven- and eight-year-olds, but not older children, exhibited a first possessor bias. “Children under 9 commonly inferred that first-possessors maintained ownership of property, even after they unambiguously transferred the property to another person.” “Experiment 1 reveals that the first possessor bias influences ownership attributions among children age 7 and 8, but not 9 and 10.” “Experiment 1 demonstrates that the first possessor bias persists much longer into development than previously thought.” “This result replicates previous findings and expands upon those studies, suggesting that the first possessor bias influences a wider swath of property transfers than previously demonstrated, and that children’s ownership attributions are affected by this bias for longer than previously reported.”

At the same time, they found that the bias was greatly attenuated or absent when property transfers were presented in a first-person context. This was demonstrated in a second experiment, in which “Participants were always framed as the recipients or second actor in each scenario, and they were asked who owned the target object at the end of each trial. Participants indicated that the item either belonged to them or to the experimenter.” “In Experiment 2, all age groups demonstrated attenuated endorsement of the first possessor with respect to stealing (…) context powerfully influences intuitions about property transfers in both children and adults.” “Experiment 2 provides an explanation for the mismatch between intuitions that children do understand property transfers early in development, and findings that children’s intuitions about property transfers are fundamentally biased. Specifically, manipulating the presentation context (i.e., presenting transfers in a first-person context) resulted in children generating adult-like ownership attributions for typical property transfers such as giving and selling.”

One important consequence for the study of the development of ownership is that there is a big gap between first- and third-person reasoning. Thus one can reconcile research by Rossano, Rakoczy, & Tomasello (2011) among others, that shows that 3-year-olds recognize property rights when laboratory situations resemble real-life situations, with other studies which use third-person narratives and find errors in reasoning about property rights in children until at least age 10 (Kim & Kalish, 2009).

The authors speculate that the first-possessor bias has adaptive value: “it is possible that young children are less adept at reasoning about property transfers because these events are more ambiguous, and more likely to be intervened upon, than non-transfer scenarios. Given these circumstances, maintaining strong bonds between owners and their property may be a more functional approach for young children than reasoning in a more adult-like and “accurate” manner.”

Kim, S., & Kalish, C. W. (2009). Children’s ascriptions of property rights with changes of ownership. Cognitive Development, 24(3), 322–336. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.COGDEV.2009.03.004

Noles, N. S., & Keil, F. C. (2019). Exploring the first possessor bias in children. PLoS ONE, 14(1), 1–13. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209422

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

Levene et al. on ownership claims

Text #11

Levene, M., Starmans, C., & Friedman, O. (2015). Creation in judgments about the establishment of ownership. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 103–109. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2015.04.011

This is an essential paper for the field of the psychology of ownership.

Levene et al.’s study focuses on a fundamental topic. People come to own objects as result of specific actions, such as creating (or building) the object, discovering the object (thus being its first possessor), buying the object, etc. These are not mechanical or physical facts, but institutional acts performed inside a certain culture. The social norms and procedures that regulate ownership operate on a conceptual and linguistic level. In other words, human ownership it’s not just a matter of grabbing things, but also of arguing why something belongs to someone: “because I saw it first”, “because I made it myself”, “because dad gave it to me”, etc.

Now, such ownership claims can sometimes conflict. One person can say, “This is mine because I saw it first”, while another one can reply, “No, that is not yours, that is mine because I made it”. In such a case, which party has the most powerful argument? Perhaps some specific types of ownership claims are more decisive, fundamental or relevant than others. There might be a hierarchy of ownership principles according to which, in general, “creation” trumps “first possession” (or the other way around).

Some studies (both with children and with adults) have tried to clarify which ownership principles are usually acknowledged as the most relevant or decisive. There is a problem with such a task, though: it’s very hard to imagine situations in which principles are applied in a pure, uncontaminated manner. Rather, each principle tends to mix and confound itself with others, to some extent. For example, “creation typically implies prior possession and manipulation of the object, so it is difficult to be sure whether children’s ownership judgments were based on creation itself, rather than on these other factors”.

Levene et al.’s paper addresses these questions by means of four studies conducted with adults over the Internet. They use third person stories which involve some ingenious and novel ways of taking apart ownership principles in order to establish which one has precedence over the others. For example, in one story, a man throws paint at a board, thus creating a painting; while a second man picks the board. The first agent thus embodies pure creation (without possession) while the second embodies pure possession (without creation).

The authors conclude that creation is the most important and general principle, and that it affects people’s judgments of ownership more clearly than other competing principles such as first possession, invested labor or increases in the object’s value. “Creation trumps first possession as a mean of acquiring ownership”.

Another interesting implication of the paper is that they take apart creation and labor invested. I have always thought they were more or less the same. However, the act of creating something new (something that didn’t exist before this creative act) is related to, but can be distinguished from a) the idea of the thing to be created and b) the labor invested in the creation. Both the idea and the labor are essential for the creation, yet they are different from the creative act.

Children think that creative labor justifies ownership transfers (Kanngiesser)

Text #10

Kanngiesser, P., Gjersoe, N., & Hood, B. M. (2010). The effect of creative labor on property-ownership transfer by preschool children and adults. Psychological Science : A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21(9), 1236–1241.

Another important study by Kanngiesser.

Let me first paste the abstract:

“We investigated whether preschool children and adults believe that ownership of one person’s property is transferred to a second person following the second person’s investment of creative labor in that property. In our study, an experimenter and a participant borrowed modeling-clay objects from each other to mold into new objects. Participants were more likely to transfer ownership to the second individual after he or she invested creative labor in the object than after any other manipulations (holding the object, making small changes to it). This effect was significantly stronger in preschool children than in adults. Duration of manipulation had no effect on property-ownership transfer. Changes in the object’s identity acted only as a secondary cue for children. We conclude that ownership is transferred after an investment of creative labor and that determining property ownership may be an intuitive process that emerges in early childhood.”

First reflection: even though from our theoretical point of view we like to distinguish between things like “creation”, “discovery” or “transformation through the investment of labor”, maybe these are not too different from each other from the point of view of the child. That is, in all these cases, there is an agent that develops a purposeful and laborious activity on the object that is transformed as a result; and that is transformed into something that is either beautiful, or useful, or has value in some way. So children (and humans in general) understand that value is created through an agent’s activity. (This is Locke’s thesis, and it’s also part of our common sense). Once you think about it in these terms, it makes sense that children don’t pay attention to things like “duration of possession” or minor manipulations of the object; they don’t follow such mechanistic criteria, they look at transformations that make sense.

This paper, therefore, does not belong to the topic of “ownership transfer” but to the topic of “ownership claims”, in my opinion. If you take the duck and make an ashtray, you might say that the ownership of the play dough was transferred. But you can also say that you destroyed the duck and created an ashtray. You are the owner of the object you created (ownership principle).

“When asked to justify their property ownership decisions, 3-year-olds never mentioned creative labor, whereas 4-year-olds justified ownership transfers with explicit reference to creative investment. Moreover, we found that for children, the main component of creative labor was the invested effort, and the secondary component of creative labor was changing an object’s identity.” “We found that this transfer overruled an established bias to assign ownership to the individual who first possessed an object.”

“We found that children transferred ownership more frequently after making small changes to another person’s object than after possessing the same object, a result suggesting that children’s ownership judgments may even be finely calibrated to the amount of effort invested in an object.”

Creative labor has an effect on ownership judgments in adults, but the effect is less pronounced in adults than in children.