Category Archives: property

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.

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.”

Possession as the origin of property

Rose, C. M. (1985). Possession as the Origin of Property. Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 1830.

Fascinating, beautifully written article by Carol Rose explaining the relationship between possession (especially first or prior possession) and ownership from the point of view of legal theory.

Many psychologists investigating ownership in children have tried to disentangle first possession from other principles such as invested labor. Also, psychologists have tended to consider possession as a kind of direct, physical relationship between a person and an object. Rose, however, provides reasons to mistrust those positions and makes clear that possession is much more complex than common sense dictates, for three reasons at least:

1) Legal decisions that supposedly applied a first possession doctrine (e.g., the famous Pierson v. Post case) incorporate other principles as well, such as “reward to useful labor”. Actually, John Locke’s labor theory of property can be seen as very close and akin to the first possession principle. He makes it clear that it is the first agent who takes control of a natural resource through her work that gains ownership over it. He uses the simple example of picking an apple: the apple becomes mine when I pick it because I have added my labor to it and made it my property. Notice that, in this case, the added labor is minimal, and the crucial factor is that I picked the apple before anybody else. First possession and labor theories of ownership are similar and related to each other; they even imply each other.

2) Possession is not a direct grasping or grabbing of an object. Possession only takes place in the context of intersubjective conflict, or at least competition and potential conflict. Although there are precursors of possessiveness and territoriality in animals, human possession is not a purely natural, physical relationship between a person and a thing. Rather, it is a social act that follows proto-institutional or institutional (in Searle’s sense) rules.

3) Among those social and proto-institutional rules, the rules establishing what counts as giving public notice of an act of possession play a crucial role. For instance, what does a conqueror need to do in order to announce to the world that she has discovered virgin territory and therefore has a legal claim over it?

According to Rose, “common law defines acts of possession as some kind of statement. As Blackstone said, the acts must be a declaration of one’s intent to appropriate.” “Possession now begins to look even more like something that requires a kind of communication, and the original claim to the property looks like a kind of speech, with the audience composed of all others who might be interested in claiming the object in question. Moreover, some venerable statutory law obligates the acquiring party to keep on speaking, lest he lose his title by “adverse possession.”

Possession then requires the possessor to perform certain speech acts (in the technical sense this term has for speech act theory).

I quote Rose again:

“Possession as the basis of property ownership, then, seems to amount to something like yelling loudly enough to all who may be interested. The first to say, “This is mine,” in a way that the public understands, gets the prize, and the law will help him keep it against someone else who says, “No, it is mine.” But if the original communicator dallies too long and allows the public to believe the interloper, he will find that the interloper has stepped into his shoes and has become the owner.”

“Similar ideas of the importance of communication, or as it is more commonly called, “notice,” are implicit in our recording statutes and in a variety of other devices that force a property claimant to make a public record of her claims on pain of losing them altogether. Indeed, notice plays a part in the most mundane property-like claims to things that the law does not even recognize as capable of being reduced to ownership. “Would you please save my place?” one says to one’s neighbor in the movie line, in order to ensure that others in line know that one is coming back and not relinquishing one’s claim.”

“Thus, it turns out that the common law of first possession, in rewarding the one who communicates a claim, does reward useful labor; the useful labor is the very act of speaking clearly and distinctly about one’s claims to property.”

 

 

Esther Perel and ownership

Text #8

I’ve recently finished reading Esther Perel’s Mating in intimacy (Perel, 2006). What a great book. Highly recommended, not only to couples’ therapists or even psychotherapists. All psychologists should read it. Her view of relationships and particularly of sexuality in the contemporary world is really revolutionary. The only thing I don’t completely buy are her interventions in couples’ therapy: some of them sound as too theoretical, and I don’t think such verbal and general explanations can make people change. Usually, they just become rationalizations.

What does her book have to do with the stuff I discuss in this blog? Not much. But let me emphasize that I don’t consider ownership as only a social phenomenon that children need to learn about. In other words, I don’t consider ownership just as a topic within social cognition. (For example: how children develop heuristics to understand what belongs to whom). Ownership is not outside the child; ownership is not a source of input for children’s cognitive system. Not only, at least. The socio-cognitive approach reveals an important aspect of ownership, but not the most fundamental.

I’m rather interested in the experiential, existential side of it: why is it that humans need to possess stuff and to be acknowledged by others as legitimate owners; how do individuals clash with each other when competing for possession; how they become attached to their property. This is the kind of questions Rousseau used to ask, and that Rochat (Rochat, 2014) also tackles in his recent book on possession.

And Perel’s book does teach us something about it: that people can have a satisfactory sexual life only when they own it: when they own their bodies, their erotic imagination, their capacity to love.

Perel, E. (2006). Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic. HarperCollins.

Rochat, P. (2014). Origins of Possession: Owning and Sharing in Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rossano & Tomasello: Children’s understanding of violations of property rights

Paper #6

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

This is such a relevant and decisive article. From the very beginning it posits the all-important issue of ownership (about which we have talked repeatedly in this blog) in an extremely clear manner:

“Possession and property structure many, if not most, of our everyday interactions with objects. Young children (and even some animals) care about physical possession, and indeed many of children’s early conflicts with peers are over physical possession (…). By around 24 months, young children can reliably identify who possesses familiar objects (…), and their appropriate use of possessive language (“my milk’’, ‘‘mommy’s sock’’) suggests some nascent understanding even earlier than that.”

The authors then proceed to differentiate possession from property. Whereas possession has to do with physical control, property (or ownership) is a social an institution and, therefore, it is supported by social agreements to mutually recognize each person’s rights to possess things.

The authors also introduce a useful distinction between conditions of ownership (“under which conditions who owns what”) and implications of ownership (rights, commitments, entitlements). One my classify the existing literature and research on the development of ownership into studies that focus on conditions of ownership and studies that focus on implications of ownership.

In addition, the authors make the point that rules of ownership are supposed to have normative force in an agent-neutral way. This theoretical claim translates easily into an empirical claim: if children understand ownership rules as agent-neutral, they should protest transgressions against ownership when they affect a third party and not only when they affect their own interests.

How did they investigate whether children have this capacity? They used a three-party situation, involving the child, a puppet and an actor. The puppet was the agent that took either the child’s property or the actor’s property. The study found that 2 year olds protested when the puppet took their property or tried to throw it away; but 3 year olds protested also when the puppet took the actor’s property. The very fact that children protest such violation of property rights is supposed to involve an agent-neutral view of rules.

In the authors’ words: “Standing up for the property rights of a third party, using normative justifications on occasion, demonstrates (…) young children’s emerging understanding of the normative dimension of property as it applies to all persons equally in an agent-neutral manner. It is not just that I do not like it when someone takes or throws away an object that doesn’t belong to them; it is wrong.”

The authors conclude that, according to this study, by 3 years of age children understand the basic normative structure of property and property rights violations. This entails a basic understanding of institutional reality in Searle’s sense, and therefore of conventional norms and status functions. (This stick is a horse; this ball is mine; I’ve made a promise).

My only minor disagreement is that Tomasello sometimes refers to the institutional reality as “conventional”. I think one might distinguish between the moral domain, a conventional domain (arbitrary rules such as rules of etiquette) and legal or institutional norms that are neither moral nor conventional. Ownership, stealing, exchanges, contracts, membership, etc. all fall in this last category.