Category Archives: ownership

Ownership in children’s justifications. Friedman and Nancekivell

Nancekivell, S. E., Van de Vondervoort, J. W., & Friedman, O. (2013). Young Children’s Understanding of Ownership. Child Development Perspectives, 7(4), 243–247.

This study uses a very simple experimental design to explore how children (ages 3 through 5) use ownership in their explanations about why it is acceptable or unacceptable for a person to use an object. They do three experiments.

In the first two experiments, ownership is not mentioned to children, and researchers test whether children bring up ownership spontaneously in their explanations.

In Experiment 1, researchers focused on the “right of use”, that is, whether it is acceptable for a certain character to use a certain object.

Experiment 2 is similar to experiment 1, but it focuses on the “right of exclusion” (someone shouldn’t use something because it belongs to someone else).

Experiment 3 provides children with explicit information about ownership before asking about acceptability and unacceptability of use.

The conclusions are that, as children grow older, they become more likely to use ownership to explain why it acceptable or unacceptable to use an object. 3-year-olds rarely referenced ownership, while 5-year-olds referenced ownership in almost half of their explanations. 5-year-olds gave ownership explanations more than any other particular kind of explanation (and this is not the case in younger children).

4- and 5-year-olds gave ownership explanations at similar rates regardless of whether ownership was mentioned. However, whether ownership was mentioned (experiment 3) did influence 3-year-olds: When 3-year-old explained why it was unacceptable to use an object, they referenced ownership more often when it was mentioned than when it was not mentioned. 3-year-olds gave more ownership explanations in the unacceptability-of-use condition.

We should emphasize that it all hangs in the narrative context. Children might reference ownership more if asked about why a person is allowed to modify an object; but they might reference ownership less if asked about gender typed objects or objects that are potentially dangerous, as other explanatory factors might be more compelling for such items (i.e., gender norms; safety concerns).

I’m interested in this topic because I think that ownership plays an important role in the development of reasoning. Rather thank considering reasoning as a cognitive, cold faculty that is applied to the domain of ownership, I believe that reasoning develops in the context of the rhetorical fight for object possession (competition, sharing, adjudication of ownership, etc.) Children feel authorized to give permission, forbid, and reason about objects in general in so far as they can appropriate those objects and feel that they are their own. The fact that ownership appears spontaneously in children’s reasoning is therefore relevant for my research interests.

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/

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.

Klass & Zeiler: Endowment theory is wrong.

Klass, G., & Zeiler, K. (2013). Against Endowment Theory: Experimental Economics and Legal Scholarship. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2224105

This is a remarkable article. The authors make a clear-cut claim and justify this claim by means of a strong and convincing argument, grounded in experimental research; they put their claim in historical context; they spell out some implications of their claim for future research; and all along they cover an impressive amount of literature from different disciplines. They know their shit back and forth.

The simple claim is that endowment theory, at least as it has been commonly interpreted in behavioral economics and, derivatively, in legal studies, should be rejected.

The core of their argument is straightforward. It is generally accepted that the endowment effect expresses itself in the laboratory by means of exchange asymmetries: for example, people who are randomly assigned the mug don’t want to trade it for the pen, and vice-versa. In valuation studies, it expresses itself in a gap between the Willing-To-Accept and Willing-To-Pay prices: the amount of money someone is willing to pay for a concert ticket is less than what the same person is willing to accept to give up a ticket that she already has. Plott & Zeiler (2005), however, in a series of studies, found that those gaps and asymmetries can be made to disappear by manipulating contextual variables. For instance, typically, when the endowed good is handed to the participant, she is told, “I’m giving you the mug.  It is a gift.  You own it.  It is yours.”  But this utterance might signal that the mug is very valuable. When one substitutes this phrasing with a simpler formulation such as “the mug is yours, you own it,” and one also tweaks other factors (decisions are anonymous, the pen and the mug are at the same physical distance from the subject, etc.), the endowment effect tends to vanish. The endowment effect, to sum up, is an artifact of the researchers’ faulty methods that goes away when one controls all relevant variables.

The article provides historical context for the emergence of endowment theory. Behavioral economists used the endowment effect as a paradigmatic spearhead against neoclassical economics. The clash (and the types of arguments used) reminds me of intercultural psychology critique of homo economicus (Henrich et al., 2007).

In the conclusions, the authors emphasize that simple experiments on human decision making do not translate automatically into normative or political recommendations. Rather, they contribute to corroborate or falsify a theory, and it is theories that can eventually have normative implications.

Klass and Zeiler’s description of the endowment effect changed my understanding of it. They emphasize that, for endowment theory to be true, the increase in value has to result only from pure ownership, that is, from the mere fact that one has an entitlement. Let’s say that there are two mugs, and I own mug 1 but not mug 2, and mug 1 and mug 2 are identical, and both are placed at the same distance from me, and there are no facts in the object history that create any bond between me and any of the mugs. Klass and Zailer seem to claim that, according to endowment theory, I should still value mug 1 more than mug 2, because of the sheer fact that I am mug 1’s owner.

That is: Klass and Zeiler emphasize that pure, “abstract” ownership should be responsible for the endowment effect, and not the history of how the object came to be mine. Thus, they seem to exclude value resulting from attachment to the object (“emotional” or “sentimental” value). By free association, I am reminded of the Kantian view of duty as resulting from bare respect for the moral law. That is: I behave morally not because I feel some subjective satisfaction or pride in being moral, or because some utilitarian calculation that moral behavior will produce the greatest good. I think and act in accordance with my duty because that’s what I ought to do, period. In endowment theory, my thinking and acting is affected by my right, period.

I previously thought (perhaps erroneously) that the endowment effect relied in a richer conception of ownership that included psychological aspects, such as the individual’s attachment to the specific object and the pride one feels for one’s belongings. In my opinion, this view is represented by Gelman & Davidson’s (2016) study on children’s preference for unique owned objects; McEwan, Pesowski, & Friedman (2016) research showing that children view owned objects as non-fungible; Gelman, Manczak, & Noles (2012) paper that claims to have identified an endowment effect in children 2 and 3 years of age: “The present findings suggest that positive evaluation of and preference for one’s own possessions is a basic cognitive disposition, even before children have experience with conventional economic transactions.” There are many other researchers in the field of ownership (Rochat, Ross, etc.) that seem to have this richer understanding of what owning an object means. Perhaps developmental psychologists have misread endowment theory; perhaps they’re talking about a different phenomenon.

This richer view of the subject-object relationship has many antecedents in psychology. One may think of attachment theory, Winnicott’s transitional objects, etc. These different theories are not akin to the cold inclusion of the ownership title in the algorithm that calculates value, but to the warm fact that I value an object because it became mine in a certain context, as result from a certain history. Objects are extensions of the self (here I could quote some twenty developmental psychologists); ownership of property constitutes an important aspect of the construction of self-identity and of boundaries between myself and others.

Hume says something similar in his book on Emotions, in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. One is proud only of the things one owns. In Humean terms, the idea that this mug is splendid and the idea that it belongs to me are associated to each other. The fact that the things that relate to my self (my body, my watch, my horse, my children, my estate, my country) are beautiful or valuable increases my pride; conversely, if my self-esteem is high I will tend to consider that my stuff is the best, just because it’s mine.

References:

Gelman, S. A., & Davidson, N. S. (2016). Young children’s preference for unique owned objects. Cognition. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2016.06.016

Gelman, S. a., Manczak, E. M., & Noles, N. S. (2012). The nonobvious basis of ownership: Preschool children trace the history and value of owned objects. Child Development, 83(5), 1732–1747. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01806.x

Henrich, J., Boyd, R., Bowles, S., Camerer, C., Fehr, E., Mcelreath, R., … Sciences, B. (2007). “Economic Man” in Cross-cultural Perspective : Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-scale Societies. Social Dynamics, 204(06), 795–815.

Klass, G., & Zeiler, K. (2013). Against Endowment Theory: Experimental Economics and Legal Scholarship. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2224105

McEwan, S., Pesowski, M. L., & Friedman, O. (2016). Identical but not interchangeable: Preschoolers view owned objects as non-fungible. Cognition, 146, 16–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2015.09.011

Plott, C. R., & Zeiler, K. (2005, June 1). The Willingness to Pay-Willingness to Accept Gap, the “Endowment Effect,” Subject Misconceptions, and Experimental Procedures for Eliciting Valuations. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=615861

 

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. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12154

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.). https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000027

 


 

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.

 

Cited:

Pesowski, M. L., & Friedman, O. (2015). Preschoolers and toddlers use ownership to predict basic emotions. Emotion (Washington, D.C.). https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000027

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

How is a Possession “Me” or “Not Me”?

Kleine, S. S., Kleine, R. E., & Allen, C. T. (1995). How is a Possession “Me” or “Not Me”? Characterizing Types and an Antecedent of Material Possession Attachment. Journal of Consumer Research. http://doi.org/10.1086/209454

The researchers carried out two studies in which they interviewed adults (N=30 for the first one, N=24 for the second one), using Q-methodology to describe their attachment to objects across a number of variables or “factors.”

The authors found that study participants felt strongly attached to some possessions that they liked, were proud of, or felt that expressed who they were. Participants tend to keep these possessions, at least as long as they feel they represent them; when they stop having this positive valence, they get rid of them. However, there seems to be a group of possessions that participants did not like anymore and, more importantly, felt not connected with. However, they did not dispose of such “not me” possessions. Those were the possessions that were gifts, or that were personally linked to a significant person. Thus they found that 52 percent of the “not-me” possessions were gifts. “Apparently, gift receipt adds a layer of affiliation that makes even not-me objects more difficult to dispossess.”

This study shows an interesting approach to ownership that is certainly different from the stuff I’m used to read.  For starters, it was carried out with adult participants and it was published in a “Journal of Consumer Research”. Therefore, the authors do not deal with cognitive-developmental issues. The methodology seems to me obscure and not very rigorous, although I confess I’m no expert in Q-methodology. Some of the conclusions strike me as outright arbitrary. However, it was worth the read.

Susan Gelman on children’s preference for unique owned objects

Gelman, S. A., & Davidson, N. S. (2016). Young children’s preference for unique owned objects. Cognition. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2016.06.016

This is an incredible and profound study on children’s attachment to objects, with implications both for cognitive and emotional development. It’s also a study that amazes me for the amount of work it required from researchers (who had to find brand-new replicas of more than 100 children’s attachment objects).

The experimental design is quite simple. Researchers asked 36 three-year-olds to choose between two toys for either themselves or the researcher: an old (visibly used) toy vs. a new (more attractive) toy matched in type and appearance (e.g., old vs brand-new blanket). Focal pairs contrasted an old toy that belonged to the child with a matched new object; control pairs contrasted toys the child had never seen before.

The conclusion of the study is that, by 3 years of age, young children place special value on unique owned objects. Children prefer their original objects to newer, better versions, but only in the case of the focal pairs (with their objects of attachment) and not with the control pairs (objects the child had never seen before). These findings are consistent with the view that possessions are extensions of the self.

In addition, these preferences hold for “sleep” objects (blanket, pillow) and toys representing an animated character (dolls, action figures) but not for inanimate objects (a car, a toy hammer, etc.) Uniqueness is valued for sleep objects and animate toys, but not for inanimate toys. Moreover, in 30 out of 31 cases, attachment objects had a proper name. Ownership, attachment and anthropomorphism (eyes, animated features, soft or furry texture) all combine to enhance children’s preferences for their own objects.

In addition, children seemed to understand that their special objects had value for them only in so far as they share a history with the object. That is, they did not attribute the researcher the same preference for the old (attachement) object. In this sense, they seem to understand the subjective nature of value.

The results are remarkable, among other things, because of the understanding of the abstract ownership relationships, the distinction between appearance and reality and the perspective-taking abilities involved in children’s responses. The authors also emphasize how attuned any child can be to minor features of an object that indicate that it is her unique object and not a substitute.

These findings also offer a different (experimental, cognitive) perspective on the phenomenon of “transitional objects,” first described by Donald Winnicott in the 1950s.

A remarkable study indeed.

Ekman on emotions

Ekman, P. (1984). Expression and the Nature of Emotion. In Approaches to emotion. http://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

I plan to read and write more about emotions, as I am interested in the topic of self-possession vs. being possessed (or overwhelmed) by emotions. I wonder whether the use of ownership-related terms in this field is metaphorical, or rather points to a fundamental aspect of human experience: the fact that one must first possess oneself (one’s own body and actions) in order to possess other things. Many philosophers (Locke comes to mind, but also Hegel and Aristotle) have drawn this relationship between self-possession (or self-governance, being master of oneself) and personhood (being an agent in the world with the capacity to possess and own stuff).

In this article (a classic), Ekman distinguishes emotions from other reactions (mainly reflexes) and other affective phenomena, such as moods, emotional traits and affective disorders.

He also establishes 10 main characteristics of emotion:

  1. There is a distinctive pan-cultural signal for each emotion.
  2. There are distinctive, universal, facial expressions of emotion that can also be traced phylogenetically.
  3. Emotional expression involves multiple signals.
  4. The duration of emotion is limited.
  5. The timing of emotional expression reflects the details of a particular emotional experience.
  6. Emotional expression can be graded in intensity, reflecting variations in the strength of the subjective experience.
  7. Emotional expression can be totally inhibited.
  8. Emotional expressions can be convincingly simulated.
  9. Each emotion has pan-human commonalities in its elicitors.
  10. Each emotion has a pan-human pattern of the autonomous nervous system (ANS) and central nervous system (CNS) change.

 

 

 

Ownership in literature and clinical practice

Golden, A. (1997). Memoirs of a geisha: A novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

I am constantly hunting for insights on ownership in everything I read. For instance, recently I finished reading “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and couldn’t help thinking about what it means to be a slave (the protagonist of this novel is sold to an “okiya,” when she is eight years old, to become a geisha). The protagonist of this novel is always struggling to find her own authentic path in life, to decide what kind of life she wants to lead, where she wants to live, who she wants to share her life to (family, friends, loved ones). But she’s not the owner of her own life.

This character reminds me about some of my clients who, while being apparently free, are not owners of their bodies and their destinies. Once I asked one of them what her main goal for the new year was, and she replied: “to be the owner of my life”. Another one, noticing that he worked too much and for other people, and that even his business was registered under his ex-wife’s name, told me: “I feel depersonalized.” For this patient, to overcome depersonalization, to become a person again, meant becoming the proprietor of his possessions again (his efforts, his time, his business, his possessions).

 

Romantic love is universal

Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., Campbell, L., & Overall, N. C. (2015). Pair-Bonding, Romantic Love, and Evolution: The Curious Case of Homo sapiens. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(1), 20–36. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614561683

This is a paper about the evolutionary function of romantic love. Against common ideas that romantic love is purely a social and cultural construct, the authors show that some form of romantic love exists in virtually any culture on earth and that (as ancient myths and folk tales prove) it has existed since immemorial times.

Love is an important topic for a blog concerned with ownership, because loving relationships tend to be possessive. Even more, individuals in formal relationships (married, engaged, etc.) argue about their exclusive rights to the sexual enjoyment of their partners in a way that resembles an owner defending her exclusive rights to a certain property. Moreover, when they feel such exclusivity is threatened, they can be overwhelmed by emotions such as jealousy or rage.

The paper quotes several scholars (mainly Shaver and Hazan) who postulate three-dimensional theories of love that I find quite appealing. Romantic love is composed of attachment, caregiving and sex; or passion, intimacy and commitment. They also mention the striking similarity between the behavioral manifestations of parent–infant love and romantic love, which suggests that evolution may have borrowed these ancient bonding mechanisms, originally evolved in mammals to bond mothers to their offspring, and applied them to men and women in the context of romantic pair-bonding.

Contra Locke

(…) On the contrary, Nozick writes, there are instances where by mixing one’s labor with something in nature, one loses one’s labor without making any gain: “If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules (made radioactive, so I can check this) mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?” The answer is obviously the latter, he argues.

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. http://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.7.1.84

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”.

Carol Rose on the moral subject of property

Rose, C. M. (2007). The Moral Subject of Property. William and Mary Law Review, 48(5), 1897–1926.

In this beautifully written article, Carol Rose makes the argument that although property arrangements might seem unfair or unjust in many respects (how it is acquired, how it is distributed across society, its effect on the commoditization of sacred or moral aspects of social life), the institution of property is nevertheless beneficial for society at large insofar as it creates stability and incentives for individuals to take care of their property, invest, trade and create more value for society at large in the long run. So even when arrangements are not perfect in many specific cases (because they have morally questionably implications), it’s better to tolerate these shortcomings and to apply the established rules of ownership acquisition and distribution, because “property, as an institution, requires stability in people’s expectations about their own and other people’s claims.”

The article also contains a couple of nice quotes about one of my favorite topics: the relationship between associative and strict reciprocity: “Gift exchange cements community bonds-from a community of two on up to many more-keeping all the participants in a vague but nevertheless socially and emotionally charged condition of mutual give and take.” “(…) Gift giving differs from market exchange because through gifts, each party engages in imaginative participation in the life of the other, helping to cement relationships.”