Tag Archives: ori friedman

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.



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.

Children see property as nonfungible


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

This is another great article by Ori Friedman’s team. They did three experiments to find out whether children see owned objects as fungible (i.e., as replaceable or interchangeable). In Experiment 1, children considered an agent who takes one of two identical objects and leaves the other for a peer. When considering a scenario where a boy took one of two identical objects home, and left the other for a girl, preschoolers viewed his behavior as more acceptable when he took his own item, rather than the girl’s.

In Experiment 2, children considered scenarios where one agent took property from another. When considering a scenario where a boy deprived a girl of her balloon, preschoolers judged it acceptable for the girl to take back her own balloon; but they judged it unacceptable for her to take the boy’s balloon, even though it was the only balloon available to compensate her.

Finally, in Experiment 3A and 3B, children considered scenarios where a teacher could give a child either of two objects to play with—an object that the child had recently played with, or another object that looked the same. When considering a scenario where a teacher could give a boy one of two identical-looking balls to play with, preschoolers were more likely to say she should return the ball that the boy had previously played with when it belonged to him, compared with when it was her own.

These findings indicate that children see property as non-fungible.

Previous studies showed that children at these ages show concern for owners’ rights to an object. McEwan et al.’s findings extend knowledge by showing that these concerns persist even when an identical replacement is available to the other. The fact that children at these ages already show intuitions of non-fungibility indicates that such intuitions are an early development, and perhaps foundational in people’s reasoning about ownership. People view ownership as granting people rights to particular objects (i.e., rather than to objects of a certain type).

These are all very relevant and important findings that add detail to current knowledge about the development of ownership.

One conceptual doubt. The fact that children say that it’s not ok to take the perpetrator’s object may not mean that children literally see identical objects as interchangeable. In my opinion, this last statement presupposes a “physicalist” view of the world, understood as a collection of free floating objects with certain physical characteristics that make them different or identical, and placed in certain positions within a 3D space. An alternative view is that children, when they respond to the interviewer, are judging the actions and intentions of the characters, in the context of a social situation that includes objects. And, as Gelman says, objects have histories. So children may think something like “it’s not ok to take someone else’s property even if they took yours first”. It is also more likely that they think in terms of particular objects, not in terms of classes or categories of objects. So the concepts of “identical” or “interchangeable” may not play a role in children’s reasoning. Also, the difference between responses to the balloon situation and the cookie situation might be due to the fact that children take into account the actions of the perpetrators, and perhaps her intentions. It’s not the same popping a balloon accidentally than eating a cookie purposefully.

Great article.


Levene et al. on ownership claims

Text #11

Levene, M., Starmans, C., & Friedman, O. (2015). Creation in judgments about the establishment of ownership. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 103–109. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2015.04.011

This is an essential paper for the field of the psychology of ownership.

Levene et al.’s study focuses on a fundamental topic. People come to own objects as result of specific actions, such as creating (or building) the object, discovering the object (thus being its first possessor), buying the object, etc. These are not mechanical or physical facts, but institutional acts performed inside a certain culture. The social norms and procedures that regulate ownership operate on a conceptual and linguistic level. In other words, human ownership it’s not just a matter of grabbing things, but also of arguing why something belongs to someone: “because I saw it first”, “because I made it myself”, “because dad gave it to me”, etc.

Now, such ownership claims can sometimes conflict. One person can say, “This is mine because I saw it first”, while another one can reply, “No, that is not yours, that is mine because I made it”. In such a case, which party has the most powerful argument? Perhaps some specific types of ownership claims are more decisive, fundamental or relevant than others. There might be a hierarchy of ownership principles according to which, in general, “creation” trumps “first possession” (or the other way around).

Some studies (both with children and with adults) have tried to clarify which ownership principles are usually acknowledged as the most relevant or decisive. There is a problem with such a task, though: it’s very hard to imagine situations in which principles are applied in a pure, uncontaminated manner. Rather, each principle tends to mix and confound itself with others, to some extent. For example, “creation typically implies prior possession and manipulation of the object, so it is difficult to be sure whether children’s ownership judgments were based on creation itself, rather than on these other factors”.

Levene et al.’s paper addresses these questions by means of four studies conducted with adults over the Internet. They use third person stories which involve some ingenious and novel ways of taking apart ownership principles in order to establish which one has precedence over the others. For example, in one story, a man throws paint at a board, thus creating a painting; while a second man picks the board. The first agent thus embodies pure creation (without possession) while the second embodies pure possession (without creation).

The authors conclude that creation is the most important and general principle, and that it affects people’s judgments of ownership more clearly than other competing principles such as first possession, invested labor or increases in the object’s value. “Creation trumps first possession as a mean of acquiring ownership”.

Another interesting implication of the paper is that they take apart creation and labor invested. I have always thought they were more or less the same. However, the act of creating something new (something that didn’t exist before this creative act) is related to, but can be distinguished from a) the idea of the thing to be created and b) the labor invested in the creation. Both the idea and the labor are essential for the creation, yet they are different from the creative act.


Nancekivell, Van de Vondervoort, & Friedman, 2013 – Children’s understanding of ownership

Paper #5

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 is a nice and well written paper that reviews the state of the art in the study of ownership development in children.

I already knew most of the findings they present. But there is something new and interesting at the end of the paper, where they discuss children’s understanding of property rights. They make the point that property rights might be considered as an extension of personal rights and bodily rights. This is exactly what I argue at the end of my (unpublished) paper comparing Hegel’s philosophy and current research on ownership: we first take possession of our bodies, gain autonomy, differentiate ourselves from others (think of a two-year old saying “no” when he is told to go to the toilet or to take a bath), draw a limit between our body and other people, and then we extend this “ownership” of our own body and self to the objects we possess.

In the authors’ terms, “notions of ownership rights might stem from people’s appreciation of personal rights and bodily rights (…) children’s belief that owners are typically entitled to control their own property (ownership rights) might be linked with their awareness that people are typically entitled to control themselves (bodily rights). Hence, children may judge that using a stranger’s comb is impermissible for the same reason they would judge it impermissible to touch the stranger’s hair. The possibility that children’s notion of ownership rights is linked with their notions of bodily rights is also consistent with the possibility that their notions of ownership rights stem from their appreciation of the personal domain—the actions and choices people can decide for themselves, free from regulation by others (Nucci, 1981).”

And also: “Evidence for the view that ownership rights and bodily rights are connected comes from the finding that preschoolers reason similarly when making moral judgments in these two domains. Four-year-olds were presented with scenarios in which an agent acted on the body or property of an evaluator (e.g., a boy touched a girl’s hair or touched her doll), or on the agent’s own body or property. Children’s moral evaluations of the agent’s actions were influenced by the evaluator’s approval and by whether the target of the action belonged to the actor or the evaluator. However, their evaluations were not influenced by whether the target of the action was an object or body part. Hence, children’s evaluations of ownership violations apparently are not based on rules that apply specifically to owned objects. (Van de Vondervoort & Friedman, 2013).”

A fascinating topic. I wish I knew how to investigate that.