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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/

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