Tag Archives: ownership

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.

To own your own life

Texts #16 & #17

Here is a brief comment about a couple of books I’ve read lately. I’ve come to the conclusion that the topic of ownership is underrated, and that an examination of our lives helps us recognize that ownership is central to our everyday existence and to our human condition in general. To own oneself seems to be the core of our existence as persons. Before we can become masters of the objects around us, we need to take possession of ourselves. Self-ownership is something that we tend to take for granted (and therefore we don’t talk about it).

The intuition of the centrality of self-ownership is presupposed by different philosophical and psychological texts. It can be traced in Freud’s doctrine of narcissism and self-eroticism,  Heidegger’s concept of Eigentlichkeit, Plato’s (and Kant’s) insistence on self-government, Nietzsche’s comments on freedom. All these authors seem to believe that the individual needs to own herself, to govern herself, to be her own sovereign, in order to exist. (Depending on the author and the context, this might be: to have a body, to be a person, to be authentic, to be free, just, or happy).

Literature also plays with self-ownership… and the lack thereof. For example, there is Selva Almada’s Chicas Muertas, which narrates the murders of four young women in Argentina in the 80s, and the author’s journey to find traces of their lives and reconstruct their deaths. Above all, Almada tries desperately to recover the victims’ voice. This makes you realize that, in the case of gender violence and extreme abuse, the victim loses control over basic things we take for granted in our everyday life: her voice, her body, her life. Someone else has taken hold of those basic aspects of a person’s existence.

To mention a very different book now, but one also written by a young contemporary and talented woman, there’s Nicole Krauss’ the history of love, which tells the story of Leo Gursky (and Alma, and her mom and brother…). Leo is a man that has lost everything, basically as a consequence of the Holocaust. He has lost his village, his country, his family, the woman he loved, the book he wrote, the contact with his only child. The result is half-a-man, a man that sees his own existence as diminished because of his losses. A man that is alive but who doesn’t exist, because he owns nothing.

I don’t want to elaborate about these points excessively, but please read the books and you’ll see I’m right.

 

Chicas muertas: http://www.cuspide.com/9789873650260/Chicas+Muertas/

History of love: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_History_of_Love

Children value ideas over labor

Text #15

Li, V., Shaw, A., & Olson, K. R. (2013). Ideas versus labor : What do children value in artistic creation ? COGNITION, 127(1), 38–45. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2012.11.001

The procedure is simple: have an adult direct a child making a work of art (so that the adult is contributing the guiding ideas while the child is contributing “brute” labor). Then, reverse the roles: have the child supply the guiding idea while the adult follows directions and executes the work of art. Finally, have the child chose which final product she prefers to take home with her: the one that incorporated her effort or the one that reflects her idea?

In a second experiment, the researchers used a similar situation but now they tricked the subjects so that children believed that the drawing contained their ideas when it actually contained the adult’s idea (and vice versa, they believed that the drawing which they had actually created while being directed by an adult was the one that incorporated their ideas).

In a third experiment, they used a third person narrative to lay out a comparison between someone who contributes labor and someone who contributes ideas to the creation of an object. Who should keep the resulting product?

These studies demonstrated that by 6 years old, children value ideas over physical labor. Six year olds systematically chose pictures that contained their own ideas over pictures that contained their labor, even when they were merely tricked into believing that they had come up with the idea for a picture that they had not. Further, 6 year olds demonstrated a general appreciation of ideas – they not only valued their own ideas (Studies 1 and 2), but also privileged idea creators over laborers in a property dispute (Study 3). In contrast, 4 year olds appear to have preferred pictures that contained their specific idiosyncratic preferences. Four year olds preferred pictures containing their ideas, but also their idiosyncratic preferences in Study 1 and pictures they believed contained their labor but also their idiosyncratic preferences in Study 2. Further supporting this possibility, in Study 3 where idiosyncratic preferences could not play a role in selection, 4 year olds showed no bias for either a third-party idea creator or laborer. Six year olds, by way of contrast, sided with the idea creators in third-party case, even when they personally had no connection to the idea.

The age effect in these studies may exist because 6, but not 4 year olds, understand that ideas are valuable and can thus be owned.

In conclusion, the tendency to value ideas is present in childhood and may emerge between 4 and 6 years old. 6 year olds value ideas over labor even when making third-party judgments, favoring those who only contributed ideas as more deserving of a picture over those who only contributed labor.

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.

Conclusions:

“ 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.”

Ownership, object history and endowment effect in 2 and 3 year olds – Gelman

Text #13

Gelman, S. a., Manczak, E. M., & Noles, N. S. (2012). The nonobvious basis of ownership: Preschool children trace the history and value of owned objects. Child Development, 83(5), 1732–1747. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01806.x

The paper presents two studies with 2 year-olds, 3 year-olds, and adults. The first study addresses the use of object history to determine ownership, while the second studies the endowment effect. The experimental design is very simple: assign objects (from certain object sets) to individuals, and then ask subjects a) which object belongs to whom, b) which object they like best.

1) Ownership is abstract… or nonobvious.

One a conceptual level, it is interesting that this paper emphasizes the fact that ownership is abstract. I have previously used that word, abstract, to refer to ownership in a recent paper of my own. But, actually, that’s not the word that Gelman et al. prefer to use when speaking of ownership; they describe it as nonobvious rather than abstract. Here’s what they say:

  • Ownership is of interest because it is a cognitive construction, not materially present in the owned object. As Snare (1972, p. 200) aptly stated, ‘‘[A] stolen apple doesn’t look any different from any other apple.’’
  • A mature concept of ownership includes an understanding that proximity, perceptual or functional features, and desirability, although potent factors, cannot by themselves determine who owns what. In other words, ownership is an invisible quality that can be traced by consideration of object history rather than by inspection of the properties of the object.

I don’t know why the talk about “nonobvious” rather than “abstract”. Abstract seems to be the common-sense word to describe invisible, relational features.

2) Object history.

In order to assess who owns what, human agents reconstruct the history of each individual object (“first I found it there, then I gave it to her, then she placed it in that red box… etc.). “Given the centrality of object history, it becomes particularly important to track where an object moves over time.”

“Experiment 1 demonstrates that 3-year-olds, like adults, construe ownership as a nonobvious property that does not reduce to outward perceptual or functional features”. “This doesn’t seem to be the case for 2-year-olds, who in certain experimental situations and with certain sets of objects do not seem to use object history in their ownership judgments.” “The present studies demonstrate that children as young as 3 years of age spontaneously attend to object history to determine ownership.”

3) Endowment effect

The authors claim that they are the first to demonstrate an endowment effect in children 2 and 3 years of age. “The present findings suggest that positive evaluation of and preference for one’s own possessions is a basic cognitive disposition, even before children have experience with conventional economic transactions.”

This is interesting. By the way, why do they say that the disposition to value one’s own stuff is “cognitive”? They call it a “cognitive disposition”. But you can make the case that such a basic way of being of humans and perhaps other species is not appropriately described as “cognitive”. We are dealing with something that is as emotional as it is cognitive. We value and defend what we are and what we have. This phenomenon (the endowment effect) might be linked even with territorial behaviors. I think there are deep existential, cultural and evolutionary motivations in this “will to possess” and to value what one has. The word “cognitive” would suggest a conceptual frame, an innate category, some “cold” rule or feature of our cognitive system. It’s not proved that that’s the best description of what’s going on here.

“Ownership confers special value on objects, across the life span. This finding extends beyond prior work in demonstrating that preference is for the particular object assigned (not just for that type of object).”

4) Endowment effect precedes object history tracking

“The most striking developmental change concerned the comparison between the two experiments. Three-year-olds and adults distinguish ownership from likability, reporting that they owned objects even when they did not like them (e.g., the participant-plain items). In contrast, 2-year-olds show no difference between the ownership task (Experiment 1) and the endowment task (Experiment 2). In other words, 2-year-olds conflate ownership with desirability, thus failing to grasp that a toy they do not like actually belongs to them.

5) Mutual exclusivity

“Participants showed a mutual exclusivity bias concerning ownership, rarely assigning an object to Zippy [a fictional character they introduced in some situations] that had already been assigned to another owner. Mutual exclusivity is a principle that young children adhere to in their word extensions (Markman, 1989; Markman, Wasow, & Hansen, 2003), and it is notable that this same principle applies outside the realm of labeling.”

One might speculate about mutual exclusivity as a common feature of ownership and language. Perhaps this is an innate rule or constraint of our cognitive system, that is applied to different domains as language and ownership? Or perhaps mutual exclusivity as a principle co-evolved with human society and the rules of ownership? There are theories that derive human’s symbolic functioning from social life, and in particular from the institution of ownership. Mutual exclusivity is essential for the institution of ownership: the very meaning of something being mine is that I, not you, control it; if something is mine it’s not yours. In order to claim something as your own, you need to put a mark on the object, or make a gesture, or use some other symbolic means, that might be at the very origin of the semiotic function in general and language in particular.

 

First arrival and land ownership

Text #12

Verkuyten, M., Sierksma, J., & Thijs, J. (2015). First arrival and owning the land: How children reason about ownership of territory. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 41, 58–64. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.11.007

This is an interesting and rare article on first arrival and land ownership.

The article raises interesting questions on the role of the “first arrival” principle in disputes about land ownership. “First arrival” to a land is in a sense analogous to first possession of objects. They study this topic with children between 9 and 12 years of age and their answer is that “children believe that a person owns a particular land relatively more when that person arrived first.” Furthermore, the first arriver is considered to own the land relatively more even when she did not work the land, compared to the later arriver who did work it. In judging ownership, first arrival even outweighs the laboring of the land of the later arriver. Thus the perceived possessory right of the first arriver is not fully transferred to someone who worked the land but did not arrive first.

“Being there first seems an important consideration for deciding who owns the land and has the right to control it. This corresponds to ‘historical right’ which in political theory refers to the right to a piece of land because of first occupancy (…), and to anthropological research that has demonstrated that people use notions of autochthony as self-evident reasons to (re-)claim land and rights in territorial and other disputes (…). First-comers to a new territory have historically claimed ownership of the respective territory and the belief of ‘we were here first’ tends to trigger self-evident notions of ownership and entitlements.”

Methodologically, the paper is questionable. The researchers use self-administered questionnaires to test children about many topics during a single session. They don’t interview children; they can’t ask for justifications or dig deeper into children’s reasoning. They call their research an “experiment” and I’m not sure it can be called one. The subjects are relatively old children (9 to 12 years of age), which is convenient if one wants children to self-administer the questionnaires.

I think it would be interesting to do a similar research but targeting younger children’s ideas on land ownership and, in general their territorial ideas and behaviors (present already at 2 years of age at least).

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.

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 through 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 these terms, it makes sense that children don’t 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.

Esther Perel and ownership

Text #8

I’ve recently finished reading Esther Perel’s Mating in intimacy (Perel, 2006). What a great book. Highly recommended, not only to couples’ therapists or even psychotherapists. All psychologists should read it. Her view of relationships and particularly of sexuality in the contemporary world is really revolutionary. The only thing I don’t completely buy are her interventions in couples’ therapy: some of them sound as too theoretical, and I don’t think such verbal and general explanations can make people change. Usually, they just become rationalizations.

What does her book have to do with the stuff I discuss in this blog? Not much. But let me emphasize that I don’t consider ownership as only a social phenomenon that children need to learn about. In other words, I don’t consider ownership just as a topic within social cognition. (For example: how children develop heuristics to understand what belongs to whom). Ownership is not outside the child; ownership is not a source of input for children’s cognitive system. Not only, at least. The socio-cognitive approach reveals an important aspect of ownership, but not the most fundamental.

I’m rather interested in the experiential, existential side of it: why is it that humans need to possess stuff and to be acknowledged by others as legitimate owners; how do individuals clash with each other when competing for possession; how they become attached to their property. This is the kind of questions Rousseau used to ask, and that Rochat (Rochat, 2014) also tackles in his recent book on possession.

And Perel’s book does teach us something about it: that people can have a satisfactory sexual life only when they own it: when they own their bodies, their erotic imagination, their capacity to love.

Perel, E. (2006). Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic. HarperCollins.

Rochat, P. (2014). Origins of Possession: Owning and Sharing in Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rossano & Tomasello: Children’s understanding of violations of property rights

Paper #6

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

This is such a relevant and decisive article. From the very beginning it posits the all-important issue of ownership (about which we have talked repeatedly in this blog) in an extremely clear manner:

“Possession and property structure many, if not most, of our everyday interactions with objects. Young children (and even some animals) care about physical possession, and indeed many of children’s early conflicts with peers are over physical possession (…). By around 24 months, young children can reliably identify who possesses familiar objects (…), and their appropriate use of possessive language (“my milk’’, ‘‘mommy’s sock’’) suggests some nascent understanding even earlier than that.”

The authors then proceed to differentiate possession from property. Whereas possession has to do with physical control, property (or ownership) is a social an institution and, therefore, it is supported by social agreements to mutually recognize each person’s rights to possess things.

The authors also introduce a useful distinction between conditions of ownership (“under which conditions who owns what”) and implications of ownership (rights, commitments, entitlements). One my classify the existing literature and research on the development of ownership into studies that focus on conditions of ownership and studies that focus on implications of ownership.

In addition, the authors make the point that rules of ownership are supposed to have normative force in an agent-neutral way. This theoretical claim translates easily into an empirical claim: if children understand ownership rules as agent-neutral, they should protest transgressions against ownership when they affect a third party and not only when they affect their own interests.

How did they investigate whether children have this capacity? They used a three-party situation, involving the child, a puppet and an actor. The puppet was the agent that took either the child’s property or the actor’s property. The study found that 2 year olds protested when the puppet took their property or tried to throw it away; but 3 year olds protested also when the puppet took the actor’s property. The very fact that children protest such violation of property rights is supposed to involve an agent-neutral view of rules.

In the authors’ words: “Standing up for the property rights of a third party, using normative justifications on occasion, demonstrates (…) young children’s emerging understanding of the normative dimension of property as it applies to all persons equally in an agent-neutral manner. It is not just that I do not like it when someone takes or throws away an object that doesn’t belong to them; it is wrong.”

The authors conclude that, according to this study, by 3 years of age children understand the basic normative structure of property and property rights violations. This entails a basic understanding of institutional reality in Searle’s sense, and therefore of conventional norms and status functions. (This stick is a horse; this ball is mine; I’ve made a promise).

My only minor disagreement is that Tomasello sometimes refers to the institutional reality as “conventional”. I think one might distinguish between the moral domain, a conventional domain (arbitrary rules such as rules of etiquette) and legal or institutional norms that are neither moral nor conventional. Ownership, stealing, exchanges, contracts, membership, etc. all fall in this last category.

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.

In-formed and co-formed thinking (Sinclaire-Harding, Miserez, Arcidiacono, Perret-Clermont)

Paper #4

Sinclaire-Harding, L., Miserez, C., Arcidiacono, F., & Perret-Clermont, A. N. (2011). Argumentation in the Piagetian clinical interview: A step further in dialogism. In M. B. Ligorio & M. Cesar (Eds.), The interplays between dialogical learning and dialogical self (pp. 1–45). IAP: Information Age Publications.

This is the fourth and last paper on argumentation by Perret-Clermont and her collaborators that we are going to discuss for the time being. Here the authors make a distinction between a) co-formed thinking, i.e. the type of thinking shaped by the desire to comply with relational and contextual expectations and norms, and b) in-formed thinking, i.e. the type of thinking shaped by the desire to voice one’s own identity as an authentic self and author, thus expressing original ideas, creativity and knowledge. This distinction is evidently inspired in the Piagetian distinction between autonomy and heteronomy.

The authors explain that the co-formed thinker tries to respond to expectations without critique, taking little responsibility, obedient and submissive, and sometimes excessively loyal to the obligations of the interlocutor, social group, or institutional context. The co-formed thinker is externally inspired, regulated, or governed by the values, beliefs and ideas of others.

The authors mention that phrases such as “I think that…”, or “Yes, but…” are usually markers that precede the expression of children’s independent opinion or ideas (in-formed thinking). Further, children feel they own such ideas. Of course, Sinclaire-Harding et al. do not seem to take the relationship of ownership as seriously and literally as I do. (As we have insisted elsewhere, I understand the discursive act of taking a position as rooted in the legal act of taking possession).

But the authors do not seem to be interested in argumentation in everyday life and in the context of institutional contexts and normative practices in general, but more narrowly in argumentation as an activity performed in knowledge-related tasks and with cognitive ends. Thus, although they include the social context of argumentation, argumentation itself seems to be essentially cognitive for the authors, and they aspire to improve educational contexts by implementing more participatory and democratic dynamics that favor in-formed thinking.

The article rightly emphasizes the affective aspect of argumentative exchanges. For example, the authors claim that when children feel their opinions are vulnerable, they frequently withdraw in order to protect their ideas and, ultimately, their self. (This might be connected with the ideas of Jack Ito, a rara avis about whom we’ll someday write in this blog).

In any case, the authors end up talking about how children need to defend their public self and manage their reputation, a topic that for some reason seems to be extremely important for Genevan authors (Rousseau, Rochat, and now Sinclaire-Harding et al.)

The authors also mention some interesting conceptual tensions, even paradoxes of argumentation. For example, an excessive desire to cooperate might make an individual want to agree with other members of her group and therefore boost co-formed thinking (which actually is the cancellation of thinking). Too much desire to argue may create too much competition between the interlocutors and end up in aggression and “war” (again: cancellation of thinking). So, for educational purposes, it seems important to calibrate how much to stimulate the collaborative and competitive kinds of argumentation.

 

Dialogue of the deaf

Dialogue of the deaf

I had a stimulating discussion with a neuroscientist the other day. I tried to explain to her that my interest in children’s cognitive development is linked to my interest in epistemology, that is, to what I refer to in this blog as the normativity of thought.

For example, I argue that researchers who try to explain children’s knowledge of math from a nativist point of view, can only explain the starting point of cognitive development. The starting point is innate mathematical knowledge, which is mostly implicit, and basically consists in an ability to identify the numerosity of collections of objects found in the outside world. In other words: researchers have shown that animals (humans included) have the innate ability to assess the size of a collection of perceived objects (for example, they can notice that a collection of 15 pebbles is greater than a collection of 10 pebbles). They can also discriminate among exact quantities, but only when dealing with small sets (two, three, and perhaps four objects). Also, some animals and human babies can perform elementary arithmetic operations on small sets (adding two plus one, subtracting one from two, etc.) I am referring here to studies by Dehaene (2011), Izard, Sann, Spelke, & Streri (2009), Spelke (2011), and many others.

This basic capacity is certainly different from fully-fledged “human math.” The latter involves, at the very least, the symbolic representation of exact numbers larger than three. We (humans) can represent an exact number by saying its name (“nine”), or by using a gesture that stands for the number in question (depending on the culture, this might be done by touching a part of one’s body, showing a number of fingers, etc. – see Saxe ( 1991) and also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_number_gestures). And, of course, we can write down a sign that represents the number (for example, with using the Arabic numeral “9”).

Scholars agree on the fact that advanced math is explicit and symbolic, and that it builds on (and uses similar brain areas to) its precursor, innate math. Once they operate on the symbolic level, humans can do things like: performing operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and others), demonstrating mathematical propositions, proving that one particular solution to a mathematical problem is the correct one, etc. To sum up: our symbolic capacities allow us to re-describe our intuitive approach to math on a precise, normative, epistemic level.

Now, here’s when it gets tricky. I argue that the application of algorithms on the symbolic level is not merely mechanical. Humans are not computers applying rules from a rule book, one after the other (like Searle in his Chinese room). Rather, as Dehaene (2011) argues, numbers mean something for us. “Nine” means nine of something (anything). “Nine plus one” means performing the action of adding one more unit to the set of nine units. There is a core of meaning in innate math; and this core is expanded and refined in our more advanced, symbolic math.

When executing mathematical operations (either in a purely mental fashion, or supported by objects) one gets a feeling of satisfaction when one arrives to a right (fair, correct, just) result. Notice the normative language we apply here (fair, correct, right, true, just). We actually experience something similar to a sense of justice when both sides of an equation are equal, or when we arrive to a result that is necessarily correct. (Note to myself: talk to Mariano S. We might perhaps do brain fMRIs and study if the areas of the brain that get activated by the “sense of justice” in legal situations, also light up when the “sense of justice” is reached by finding the right responses in math. If a similar region gets activated, that might suggest that there is a normative aspect to math that corresponds to the normative aspect of morality).

For me, then, the million dollar question is: how do humans go from the implicit, non-symbolic, automatic level to the explicit, symbolic, intentional and normative level? What is involved in this transition? What kind of biological processes, social experiences and individual constructions are necessary to achieve the “higher,” explicit level? (These are interesting questions both for the field of math and for the field of morality). And my hypothesis is that this transition necessarily demands the intervention of a particular type of social experience, namely, the experience of the normative world of social exchanges and rules of ownership (I’ve talked a little about such reckless hypotheses in other posts of this blog).

Now, when I try to explain all this to the neuroscientist, I lose her. She doesn’t follow me. For her, human knowledge is the sum of a) innate knowledge and b) learning from the environment. Learning is the process by which our brain acquires new information from the world, information that was not pre-wired, that didn’t came ready to use “out of the box.” Whether such learning involves a direct exposure to certain stimuli that represent contents (a school teacher teaching math to his or her students) or a more indirect process of exposure to social interactions is not an interesting question for her. It doesn’t change her basic view according to which there are two things, and two things only: innate knowledge and acquired knowledge. What we know is the result of combining the two. And this is the case both for humans and for other animals. Period.

Something similar happens when I talk to her about the difference between “cold processing” and “hot processing.” We were discussing the research I am conducting right now. I interview children about ownership and stealing. In my interview design, children watch a movie where one character steals a bar of chocolate from another, and eats it. The interviewer then asks the child a series of questions aimed at understanding her reasoning about ownership and theft. Now, the movie presents a third person situation. This means that the child might be interested in the movie, but he or she is not really affected by it. Children reason about what they see in the movie, and sometimes they seem to say what they think it’s the appropriate thing to say, echoing adults’ discourse. Because, after all, the movie is fiction, not the real world.

I believe that normativity emerges not from absorbing social information that comes from external events (watching movies, attending to teachers’ explanations) but from children’s real immersion in first person, real world, conflictive situations. When a child is fighting against another for the possession of a toy, there are cries and sometimes there even is physical violence. These encounters end up in different ways; sometimes children work out a rule for sharing the scarce resource, sometimes they just fight, and sometimes an adult intervenes and adjudicates in the conflict. The child’s reactions during these events is not dictated by cold reasoning but by deeper impulses. It is in these situations where we should look for the emergence of our basic normative categories, such as reciprocity (both social and logical, or “reversibility”), ownership (or the relationship between substance and its “properties”), quantity (used to implement equity and equality), etc.

But, again, my biologist friend does not feel that the distinction between the impulsive, intense, hot reactions we experience when involved in real conflicts and the kind of third person reasoning that is triggered by movies and artificial stimuli is an important one. In both cases, she argues, it’s the same cognitive system that is at work. What we think about third person characters is probably similar to how we reason about ourselves (thanks to our capacity for empathy, our mirror-neurons, etc.)

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong here.

 

Dehaene, S. (2011). The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, Revised and Updated Edition. The number sense How the mind creates mathematics rev and updated ed (p. 352). Oxford University Press, USA. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/dp/0199753873

Izard, V., Sann, C., Spelke, E. S., & Streri, A. (2009). Newborn infants perceive abstract numbers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 106(25), 10382–10385.

Saxe, G. B. (1991). Culture and Cognitive Development: Studies in Mathematical Understanding. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Spelke, E. S. (2011). Quinian bootstrapping or Fodorian combination? Core and constructed knowledge of number. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(3), 149–150.

 

Intangible territoriality

L. (3 years and a half) has become very defensive of his territory, especially in his dealings with his older sister. He started by demanding her not to touch him or the toys he was using. Later he began to enforce a kind of “exclusion zone”: he doesn’t want his sister to get too close to him, especially when he’s playing by himself (with his toy cars, etc.). Of course, this doesn’t happen all the time; they often play together and get along well. But sometimes he does get very territorial and shouts or cries asking her to leave (in his jargon: “¡ite!”), and if she doesn’t obey he tries to recruit parental help.

Lately, in what I see as an increase in this kind of territoriality, he seems to be concerned about “intellectual property”: whenever he says something and is echoed by his older sister (or other people) saying something identical or very similar to what he just said, he tells her not to copy him (“¡No me copies!”). He’s enforcing intangible boundaries that protect his identity; he’s drawing an assertive circle around him and he’s self-confident enough to try to deter his older sister from crossing this limit.

 

Summary of my presentation at the fairness conference

I like the summary Erin Robbins and Philippe Rochat wrote for my presentation at the Fairness Conference (Emory University, 2012). It really captures the spirit of what I was trying to convey. It goes as follows:

Gustavo Faigenbaum from the University Autonoma de Entre Rios in Argentina (“Three Dimensions of Fairness”), in contrast to the preceding two evolutionary perspectives, argues that in understanding fairness, individual morality has been overrated and institutions underrated. To this end, Faigenbaum advances several claims that draw from both psychological and philosophical theories. First, he argues that institutional experience shapes concepts of fairness. This is evident in children’s interactions in schoolyards, where they engage in associative reciprocity (sharing with others to build alliances and demonstrate social affinities) rather than strict reciprocity. At the level of adult behavior, this associative reciprocity is also evident in gift-giving rituals. Second, Faigenbaum argues that possession and ownership are the most important institutions in the development of fairness reasoning because they involve abstraction and are the first step in the development of a deontological perspective.

Concepts of morality do not need to be evoked; he argues that research on children’s protests of ownership violations reflect an emphasis on conventional rather than moral rules. Faigenbaum concludes by arguing that participation in rule-governed activities is sufficient to create mutual understandings about what constitutes fair exchange (per philosopher John Searle’s “X counts as Y” rule). Developmental research demonstrates that fairness is an autonomous domain of experience that is fundamentally tied to institutions and cannot be reduced to moral reasoning proper.

The complete presentation is available at youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZcLicg_Dw8) yet the sound is terrible and it’s practically impossible to listen to.