Tag Archives: kanngiesser

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.


Kanngiesser & Hood on children’s understanding of ownership rights for newly made objects

Text #14

Kanngiesser, P., & Hood, B. M. (2014). Young children’s understanding of ownership rights for newly made objects. Cognitive Development, 29(1), 30–40.

This is a great paper. To begin with, Kanngiesser & Hood make a beautiful, succinct summary of the state of the art in the field of ownership development. I feel tempted to paste it here:

“Infants begin to show an understanding of ownership relationships between 1.5 and 2 years of age when they first use possessive pronouns like “mine” and “yours” (Hay, 2006; Tomasello, 1998) and identify owners of familiar objects such as their mother’s toothbrush (Fasig, 2000). From two years of age children infer ownership of unfamiliar objects based on first possession, attributing ownership to the person who possessed an object first (Friedman & Neary, 2008). At 2.5 years of age they are able to learn ownership relationships between out of view objects and their owners (Blake & Harris, 2011). These abilities become more refined at three years of age, when children use object history to infer ownership (Friedman, Van de Vondervoort, Defeyter, & Neary, 2013; Gelman, Manczak, & Noles, 2012) and apply ownership rules such as ascribing ownership to a person who grants/denies permission to use an object (Neary, Friedman, & Burnstein, 2009) or who invested effort in making a new object (Kanngiesser, Gjersoe, & Hood, 2010). Yet, not until four years of age do children prioritize verbal ownership statements over physical possession of objects (Blake, Ganea, & Harris, 2012). Taken together, these findings suggest that children’s understanding of ownership relationships manifests at two years of age and becomes more sophisticated during the preschool years.”

The previous paragraph deals with “ownership conditions,” i.e. how children determine who owns what. Then they use a separate paragraph to describe the state of the art concerning “ownership implications,” i.e. children’s understanding of ownership rights.

“Relating owners to their property, however, is only one ability necessary for developing a concept of ownership. Few studies have directly investigated at what age children start to appreciate the normative implications of ownership, i.e., that it is associated with certain rights that are respected and reinforced by a community. By age two children frequently defend their possessions (or possessions they were told were theirs) against take-over attempts by others (Eisenberg-Berg, Haake, & Bartlett, 1981; Hay & Ross, 1982) and begin to show respect for others’ ownership of objects (Ross, 1996), providing some evidence for an early understanding of an owner’s exclusive access to his or her property. In contrast, studies presenting children with third party ownership stories have shown that it is not until age 4–5 that children appreciate different ownership rights (Kim & Kalish, 2009) or differentiate between legitimate (gift giving) and illegitimate (stealing) transfers of ownership (Blake & Harris, 2009). Yet, more recently, Rossano and colleagues (2011) demonstrated that 2- and 3-year olds protested against property rights violations when their own property was at stake, but that only 3-year-olds also interfered when a third party’s ownership rights were violated. This suggests that by age 3 children are already aware of the normative structure of some rights for personal property, i.e., that property rights do not apply only to one’s own possessions but to others’ possessions, too.”

The paper then describes two experiments. In Experiment 1, they have a puppet taking away an object the child has just created out of raw materials provided by the researcher–or, alternatively,  that a third person (an experimenter) has just made, and monitor children’s protests. After registering children’s spontaneous protests (or lack thereof) they explicitly asked children who the object’s owner was. Experiment 2 is similar to experiment one except that the objects at stake are raw materials and not newly made objects.


“ We found that 2- and 3-year-olds protested when their own objects were at stake, making spontaneous references to ownership when protesting (e.g., “Mine.”). Thus, young children do not only appreciate their ownership rights with respect to personal property items (Rossano et al., 2011), but also with respect to newly made objects. Children’s ownership claims regarding their objects were specific to the investment of effort (Kanngiesser et al., 2010), as children who had only played with unchanged materials displayed very little ownership protest. Overall, our results support the view that by three years of age, children not only can connect owners to property (Blake & Harris, 2011; Fasig, 2000; Friedman & Neary, 2008), but also show appreciation of at least some ownership rights (Rossano et al., 2011). In contrast to other studies, young children in our study intervened little against the puppet’s attempts to keep a third party’s objects.”

Kanngiesser & Hood also conclude that “most 3-year-olds in our study recognized a third party’s ownership of her newly made objects when they were asked direct ownership questions, suggesting that 3-year-olds may have lacked the motivation rather than the competence to protest against violations of a third party’s ownership rights”, so it can be argued that “3-year-olds viewed the investment of effort into creating new objects – but not the mere handling of materials – as sufficient for establishing ownership of previously un-owned materials.”

One might argue, however, that the key factor here is creation (which involves both having an idea about what to make, and actually investing effort in creating an object) and not simply invested labor or effort. (As Levene et al make clear in Levene, M., Starmans, C., & Friedman, O. (2015). Creation in judgments about the establishment of ownership. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 103–109.)

Finally, “The most remarkable finding in our studies is that 3-year-olds are capable of attributing ownership to a third party and yet they seldom intervene when the third party’s possessions are at stake. There are two possible explanations. Three-year-olds’ understanding of the social consequences of ownership (such as violations of ownership rights) may lag behind their ability to track ownership relationships. Two-year-olds track ownership relationships (Fasig, 2000; Hay, 2006), but at age 3 children already interfere in ownership conflicts on behalf of a third party (Rossano et al., 2011). Moreover 3-year-olds have been found to regularly intervene in a variety of situations involving violations of conventional and moral norms (Rakoczy et al., 2008; Schmidt, Rakoczy, & Tomasello, 2012; Vaish et al., 2011). Our discrepant findings thus may not reflect different developmental trajectories but rather different task demands. While answering ownership questions only requires the child to point to or to name a person, intervention in ownership violations requires an assessment of the social situation and, importantly, a motivation to act on behalf of a third party.”

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.

Kanngiesser on children’s application of the merit principle

Text #9

Kanngiesser, P., & Warneken, F. (2012). Young Children Consider Merit when Sharing Resources with Others. PLoS ONE, 7(8).

This is a great paper. It tackles the classic problem of merit as a principle of fairness (or of distributive justice): rewards should be distributed according to how much someone contributed to a task.

Kanngiesser and Warneken did two studies about children’s application of the merit principle. They made children play against a puppet at a game of collecting (“fishing”) coins that were later exchanged for rewards. They varied the work-contribution of both partners by manipulating how many coins each partner collected. Three- and five-year-olds kept, on average, significantly more stickers for themselves in the more-work condition than in the less-work condition. Children, in other words, kept fewer stickers in trials in which they had contributed less than in trials in which they had contributed more than the partner, showing that they took merit into account. Therefore, it seems that three- and five year- old children already use merit to share resources with others, even when sharing is costly for the child.

Although this appears to show that children take merit into account to calibrate their responses, it should also be noted that children almost never give away more than half of the stickers when the partner had worked more. “Even though children were clearly able to consider different work contributions, this tendency was constrained by a self-serving bias.” Thus, merit-based sharing is also mixed with or calibrated by the egotistic, self-serving bias documented by Rochat and many others.

The paper also presents a similar, second study, that shows that children’s sharing behavior is not just determined by their own absolute work-effort. Rather, children appear to take into account their own and their partner’s relative contributions when allocating resources. (Therefore, there  is some kind of elemental proportional or relational thinking here). “Young children can use comparisons between work-contribution to allocate resources.”