Tag Archives: ownership development

Exploring the first possessor bias in children. Nole & Keil.

Noles, N. S., & Keil, F. C. (2019). Exploring the first possessor bias in children. PLoS ONE, 14(1), 1–13. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209422

Very interesting and insightful paper. The authors set out to explore an apparent contradiction: on the one hand, very young children (even 2-year-olds in some studies) are adept at linking property to owners. On the other, there is research that reports that children systematically conserve property with the first possessor, even after a legitimate transfer of the property to a second possessor (e.g., after a sale, a present).

This study tests children, ages 7 through 10, for the presence of a first possessor bias in first- and third-person situations, and for different types of property transfers (gift, sale, loss, etc.)

A first experiment used third-person scripts depicting different types of property transfers. The authors found that seven- and eight-year-olds, but not older children, exhibited a first possessor bias. “Children under 9 commonly inferred that first-possessors maintained ownership of property, even after they unambiguously transferred the property to another person.” “Experiment 1 reveals that the first possessor bias influences ownership attributions among children age 7 and 8, but not 9 and 10.” “Experiment 1 demonstrates that the first possessor bias persists much longer into development than previously thought.” “This result replicates previous findings and expands upon those studies, suggesting that the first possessor bias influences a wider swath of property transfers than previously demonstrated, and that children’s ownership attributions are affected by this bias for longer than previously reported.”

At the same time, they found that the bias was greatly attenuated or absent when property transfers were presented in a first-person context. This was demonstrated in a second experiment, in which “Participants were always framed as the recipients or second actor in each scenario, and they were asked who owned the target object at the end of each trial. Participants indicated that the item either belonged to them or to the experimenter.” “In Experiment 2, all age groups demonstrated attenuated endorsement of the first possessor with respect to stealing (…) context powerfully influences intuitions about property transfers in both children and adults.” “Experiment 2 provides an explanation for the mismatch between intuitions that children do understand property transfers early in development, and findings that children’s intuitions about property transfers are fundamentally biased. Specifically, manipulating the presentation context (i.e., presenting transfers in a first-person context) resulted in children generating adult-like ownership attributions for typical property transfers such as giving and selling.”

One important consequence for the study of the development of ownership is that there is a big gap between first- and third-person reasoning. Thus one can reconcile research by Rossano, Rakoczy, & Tomasello (2011) among others, that shows that 3-year-olds recognize property rights when laboratory situations resemble real-life situations, with other studies which use third-person narratives and find errors in reasoning about property rights in children until at least age 10 (Kim & Kalish, 2009).

The authors speculate that the first-possessor bias has adaptive value: “it is possible that young children are less adept at reasoning about property transfers because these events are more ambiguous, and more likely to be intervened upon, than non-transfer scenarios. Given these circumstances, maintaining strong bonds between owners and their property may be a more functional approach for young children than reasoning in a more adult-like and “accurate” manner.”

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

Noles, N. S., & Keil, F. C. (2019). Exploring the first possessor bias in children. PLoS ONE, 14(1), 1–13. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209422

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

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