Tag Archives: ownership

Ownership in children’s justifications. Friedman and Nancekivell

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 study uses a very simple experimental design to explore how children (ages 3 through 5) use ownership in their explanations about why it is acceptable or unacceptable for a person to use an object. They do three experiments.

In the first two experiments, ownership is not mentioned to children, and researchers test whether children bring up ownership spontaneously in their explanations.

In Experiment 1, researchers focused on the “right of use”, that is, whether it is acceptable for a certain character to use a certain object.

Experiment 2 is similar to experiment 1, but it focuses on the “right of exclusion” (someone shouldn’t use something because it belongs to someone else).

Experiment 3 provides children with explicit information about ownership before asking about acceptability and unacceptability of use.

The conclusions are that, as children grow older, they become more likely to use ownership to explain why it acceptable or unacceptable to use an object. 3-year-olds rarely referenced ownership, while 5-year-olds referenced ownership in almost half of their explanations. 5-year-olds gave ownership explanations more than any other particular kind of explanation (and this is not the case in younger children).

4- and 5-year-olds gave ownership explanations at similar rates regardless of whether ownership was mentioned. However, whether ownership was mentioned (experiment 3) did influence 3-year-olds: When 3-year-old explained why it was unacceptable to use an object, they referenced ownership more often when it was mentioned than when it was not mentioned. 3-year-olds gave more ownership explanations in the unacceptability-of-use condition.

We should emphasize that it all hangs in the narrative context. Children might reference ownership more if asked about why a person is allowed to modify an object; but they might reference ownership less if asked about gender typed objects or objects that are potentially dangerous, as other explanatory factors might be more compelling for such items (i.e., gender norms; safety concerns).

I’m interested in this topic because I think that ownership plays an important role in the development of reasoning. Rather thank considering reasoning as a cognitive, cold faculty that is applied to the domain of ownership, I believe that reasoning develops in the context of the rhetorical fight for object possession (competition, sharing, adjudication of ownership, etc.) Children feel authorized to give permission, forbid, and reason about objects in general in so far as they can appropriate those objects and feel that they are their own. The fact that ownership appears spontaneously in children’s reasoning is therefore relevant for my research interests.

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.

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.

 

Cited:

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.

How is a Possession “Me” or “Not Me”?

Kleine, S. S., Kleine, R. E., & Allen, C. T. (1995). How is a Possession “Me” or “Not Me”? Characterizing Types and an Antecedent of Material Possession Attachment. Journal of Consumer Research. http://doi.org/10.1086/209454

The researchers carried out two studies in which they interviewed adults (N=30 for the first one, N=24 for the second one), using Q-methodology to describe their attachment to objects across a number of variables or “factors.”

The authors found that study participants felt strongly attached to some possessions that they liked, were proud of, or felt that expressed who they were. Participants tend to keep these possessions, at least as long as they feel they represent them; when they stop having this positive valence, they get rid of them. However, there seems to be a group of possessions that participants did not like anymore and, more importantly, felt not connected with. However, they did not dispose of such “not me” possessions. Those were the possessions that were gifts, or that were personally linked to a significant person. Thus they found that 52 percent of the “not-me” possessions were gifts. “Apparently, gift receipt adds a layer of affiliation that makes even not-me objects more difficult to dispossess.”

This study shows an interesting approach to ownership that is certainly different from the stuff I’m used to read.  For starters, it was carried out with adult participants and it was published in a “Journal of Consumer Research”. Therefore, the authors do not deal with cognitive-developmental issues. The methodology seems to me obscure and not very rigorous, although I confess I’m no expert in Q-methodology. Some of the conclusions strike me as outright arbitrary. However, it was worth the read.

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.

Ekman on emotions

Ekman, P. (1984). Expression and the Nature of Emotion. In Approaches to emotion. http://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

I plan to read and write more about emotions, as I am interested in the topic of self-possession vs. being possessed (or overwhelmed) by emotions. I wonder whether the use of ownership-related terms in this field is metaphorical, or rather points to a fundamental aspect of human experience: the fact that one must first possess oneself (one’s own body and actions) in order to possess other things. Many philosophers (Locke comes to mind, but also Hegel and Aristotle) have drawn this relationship between self-possession (or self-governance, being master of oneself) and personhood (being an agent in the world with the capacity to possess and own stuff).

In this article (a classic), Ekman distinguishes emotions from other reactions (mainly reflexes) and other affective phenomena, such as moods, emotional traits and affective disorders.

He also establishes 10 main characteristics of emotion:

  1. There is a distinctive pan-cultural signal for each emotion.
  2. There are distinctive, universal, facial expressions of emotion that can also be traced phylogenetically.
  3. Emotional expression involves multiple signals.
  4. The duration of emotion is limited.
  5. The timing of emotional expression reflects the details of a particular emotional experience.
  6. Emotional expression can be graded in intensity, reflecting variations in the strength of the subjective experience.
  7. Emotional expression can be totally inhibited.
  8. Emotional expressions can be convincingly simulated.
  9. Each emotion has pan-human commonalities in its elicitors.
  10. Each emotion has a pan-human pattern of the autonomous nervous system (ANS) and central nervous system (CNS) change.

 

 

 

Ownership in literature and clinical practice

Golden, A. (1997). Memoirs of a geisha: A novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

I am constantly hunting for insights on ownership in everything I read. For instance, recently I finished reading “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and couldn’t help thinking about what it means to be a slave (the protagonist of this novel is sold to an “okiya,” when she is eight years old, to become a geisha). The protagonist of this novel is always struggling to find her own authentic path in life, to decide what kind of life she wants to lead, where she wants to live, who she wants to share her life to (family, friends, loved ones). But she’s not the owner of her own life.

This character reminds me about some of my clients who, while being apparently free, are not owners of their bodies and their destinies. Once I asked one of them what her main goal for the new year was, and she replied: “to be the owner of my life”. Another one, noticing that he worked too much and for other people, and that even his business was registered under his ex-wife’s name, told me: “I feel depersonalized.” For this patient, to overcome depersonalization, to become a person again, meant becoming the proprietor of his possessions again (his efforts, his time, his business, his possessions).

 

Romantic love is universal

Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., Campbell, L., & Overall, N. C. (2015). Pair-Bonding, Romantic Love, and Evolution: The Curious Case of Homo sapiens. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(1), 20–36. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614561683

This is a paper about the evolutionary function of romantic love. Against common ideas that romantic love is purely a social and cultural construct, the authors show that some form of romantic love exists in virtually any culture on earth and that (as ancient myths and folk tales prove) it has existed since immemorial times.

Love is an important topic for a blog concerned with ownership, because loving relationships tend to be possessive. Even more, individuals in formal relationships (married, engaged, etc.) argue about their exclusive rights to the sexual enjoyment of their partners in a way that resembles an owner defending her exclusive rights to a certain property. Moreover, when they feel such exclusivity is threatened, they can be overwhelmed by emotions such as jealousy or rage.

The paper quotes several scholars (mainly Shaver and Hazan) who postulate three-dimensional theories of love that I find quite appealing. Romantic love is composed of attachment, caregiving and sex; or passion, intimacy and commitment. They also mention the striking similarity between the behavioral manifestations of parent–infant love and romantic love, which suggests that evolution may have borrowed these ancient bonding mechanisms, originally evolved in mammals to bond mothers to their offspring, and applied them to men and women in the context of romantic pair-bonding.

Contra Locke

(…) On the contrary, Nozick writes, there are instances where by mixing one’s labor with something in nature, one loses one’s labor without making any gain: “If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules (made radioactive, so I can check this) mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?” The answer is obviously the latter, he argues.

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.”

 

 

Bakeman & Brownlee: Social rules governing object conflicts in toddlers and preschoolers

Bakeman, R., & Brownlee, J. R. (1982). Social rules governing object conflicts in toddlers and preschoolers. In Peer relationships and social skills in childhood (pp. 99–111). New York: Springer Verlag.

I’ve seen this article quoted over and over again as one of the first serious studies on ownership in children. I finally was able to read it, and I am very impressed both by the empirical study and the theoretical reflections.

On the theoretical level, the authors hypothesize that young children are capable of developing rules to regulate interaction with their peers, “as a consequence of a fundamental human propensity to regulate social interaction in a ruleful manner”. They say children do this “not as a result of cultural intervention.” What they seem to mean is not that rules are a natural phenomenon developed outside of culture, but that children tend to develop rules spontaneously, independent of explicit adult teaching. I believe that the authors would accept the proposition that rules are developed in the context of peer-culture. The important point Bakeman and Brownlee are making is that normativity is present in human interaction very early (during the second year of life).

The authors see possession episodes (interactions in which a child tries to take an object from another child) as a privileged source to obtain examples of early rules. We know that 18 month-olds already use the possessive “mine” in the context of their frequent possession struggles. Such disputes are often the occasion of adult intervention and rule stating. For all these reasons, possession is “the place” where one should look for children’s first rules.

In their empirical work with possession episodes, the researchers focus on two types of data: the rate of success by object takers and the rate of resistance attempts by object holders.

The main finding of this study is that prior possession influences the outcome of possession episodes. If a taker has had prior possession of the object, then her take attempt is more likely to succeed. The outcome of possession episodes among children in the second, third, and fourth year of life is not simply a matter of individual power, but can be at least partly explained by reference to the prior possession rule. The researchers also found that one year olds are as likely to resist a taker who has had prior possession as not, while three year olds were less likely to resist a taker who has had prior possession. This suggests that among the three year olds the prior possession claim may have been recognized by both children, at least at a point sufficiently early in the taking so that active resistance was less likely.

However, rule observance is not the only possible explanation for children’s behavior. Perhaps if a child has played with a toy recently, she is more likely to prefer that toy to others and hence to expend more effort in its recovery. Other children might eventually acquiesce to this more vigorous onslaught, what the authors call the ”vigor of desire.” Later, children may come to resist the prior possessing taker less, not because they have accepted a social rule, but only because they have learned about the negative consequences associated with this situation.

The authors, then, admit that there is no definitive way to decide between a “social learning” and a “shared rule” interpretation of the facts, especially in the one-year-olds. The situation is somewhat less ambivalent in the three-year-olds, because they are less likely to resist a taker who has had prior possession independently of their dominance, therefore they do not seem to be simply avoiding conflict. More importantly, the authors also claim that the difference between the two interpretations may be more apparent than real. I agree with this. The fact that children resist less when the taker is a prior possessor might reflect both a tendency to avoid conflict and a spontaneous way of regulating peer interaction. In other words, what we are dealing with here are rules at their very birth.

At the end of the article there are a couple of beautiful paragraphs that clearly express the authors’ outlook: “Young children are neither nasty brutes who must have rules imposed upon them nor noble savages who come with a built-in sense of equity; rather, they are adaptive, socially sensitive organisms trying to get along in a social world full of conflicting needs and limited resources. They may have a far greater capacity for ruleful regulation of their social affairs than we usually grant them, a capacity which only careful observations of young children playing with their age-mates is likely to reveal.”

Bakeman and Brwonlee are pioneers. Apparently they are the first who studied the prior possession rule in children. I used to think that Hildy Ross was the first. The findings are the same: even 18 month old toddlers seem to observe a basic version of the prior possession rule.