Category Archives: ownership

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.