Category Archives: ownership transfer

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 though 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 this terms, it makes sense that children don’ 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.