Tag Archives: prior possession

Property transfers and property rights. Kim & Kalish.

Kim, S., & Kalish, C. W. (2009). Children’s ascriptions of property rights with changes of ownership. Cognitive Development, 24(3), 322–336. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.COGDEV.2009.03.004

The article starts with a claim that I fully endorse: that ownership is an institutional (as opposed to a “brute”) fact. The term “institutional” is here obviously used in the sense it has in John Searle’s philosophy of social reality. However, the authors distort this concept of ownership as an institution in that they make ownership depend almost exclusively on people’s intentions. As they put it: “Giving someone an object to hold, to borrow, or “for keeps” may all involve the same physical motions. It is the intentions of the parties involved that determine whether ownership has been transferred.”

Searle’s is not a subjectivist approach. Intentionality is an important aspect of institutions, yes, but intentions are not free-floating entities. Thus, for a sale to take place, it’s not enough to have the intention to sell, one also needs to meet a number of objective conditions (such as being the previous owner of the object one is selling) as well as performing certain acts in a proper manner (stating that one wants to sell an item; receiving the money and handing out the item; performing certain speech acts, etc.) Intentions are an aspect of a broader, social reality, and they are interpreted according to social practices. Social institutions are not made of human intentions only; they are the product of constitutive rules (Searle’s term), which determine the meaning of certain actions. The paper’s reduction of institutions to intentions is an error frequently observed in psychologists.

Another problem with this paper is the hazy discussion of previous research in the introduction. The authors quote several sources that connect the concepts of current possession, first possession and ownership, but the precise meaning of such connections is not clear. Thus, they quote Shantz (1981), who claims that possession is “nine-tenths of a law,” a saying that suggests that a possessor has an advantageous legal position when claiming property, without explaining how this phrase applies to children and the development of ownership. They also quote Furby (1978), who found that “owners having or keeping the object” was “central to definitions of ownership throughout elementary school years,” establishing again a vague relationship between possession and ownership. What does “central to” mean? Are they implying that children confuse or mix up possession and ownership? Or, alternatively, that children distinguish one from the other, while justifying ownership claims by referring to current physical control of the object? Further, the authors quote Cram and Ng (1989), who found that 4–5-year-old children’s conception of ownership was related to physical contact. What does “related to” mean here? Over and over again, they suggest a close relationship between possession and ownership but do not clarify how this relationship operates in children.

To make things more confusing, they then proceed to quote research demonstrating that children use previous possession to justify current ownership. “Preschool children recognize that ownership is more than immediate physical contact. (…) Toddlers and preschoolers accept, “I had it first” as a basis for settling property disputes, and initial possessors typically prevail”. But then, which one is more important to justify ownership: current possession or previous possession? How do previous and current possession relate to each other, according to extant research? To sum up, the introduction provides a very confusing developmental account of the relationships between previous possession, current possession and ownership.

They then tackle their specific topic: property transfers. “Recent evidence suggests that 4-year-olds are beginning to accept transfer of rights at least in one highly ritualized context: receiving a birthday present.” However, “studies have not carefully articulated the criteria for establishing that ownership was actually transferred. In particular, conclusions that children do understand transfer are based on their assigning some rights to receivers” but without the givers losing those rights. “Both buyers and gift recipients can take the goods home.”

Apparently, then, young children accept that recipients gain property rights but deny that givers relinquish rights. If so, then young children understand ownership transfers as a kind of lending. The recipient is allowed to use the property, but the original owner retains ultimate control. A true understanding of ownership transfer, however, requires that original owners be seen as losing their original property rights. The authors propose to use the judgment that the recipient has a stronger claim on the property than the original owner as the key indicator of a true transfer of ownership.

Experiment 1

Each participant heard three stories about conflict between an owner and a non-owner over doing something with an object. The conflicts varied according to the types of transfer at stake: finding, borrowing, selling. Participants were asked about the characters’ right to novel use, re-categorization, alteration, lending (to a third person), and discarding the object. For example, in the discard condition they were asked: “Who should get to decide whether throw away the hat or not?”

The researchers found that adults and older children judged that original owners had control in the finding and borrowing stories, and that new owners (buyers) had control in the selling story.  Younger children showed a similar pattern but were less consistent in privileging new owners in the selling story.

In owner–finder and owner–borrower stories, participants of all ages reliably assigned control to the owner. Transfers of physical possession do not constitute changes in ownership/property rights. Agents who found or borrowed property did not acquire the rights to use it against the wishes of the original owners. This is the case for practically all participants.

Now, older children and adults reliably indicated that new owners (buyers) could control property against the wishes of original owners (sellers). Young children, however, selected owners significantly less often in conflicts with sellers than in conflicts with borrowers or finders. That is, a person receiving ownership via transfer does not have the same rights to control property as someone retaining original ownership. Even younger children, however, treated buyers as having more control than finders or borrowers. They saw buyers as owners that are not granted unlimited control of their property.

Experiment 2

Experiment 2 is similar to experiment 1, but now participants evaluated two instances of the same dispute, involving the same people, actions, and objects: once before and once after a transfer of ownership occurred. Instead of different types of actions (lending, discarding, etc.) here researchers used just one alteration of the object (cutting out a magazine, coloring a picture) and varied the agents’ ability (good at coloring vs. bad at coloring). Experiment 2 directly examined ownership transfer—losing and gaining ownership rights.

It was found that, with increasing age, participants more reliably judged that owners could assert control of their property against the wishes of non-owners.

Preschool-aged children showed one of two patterns. 1) They either appreciated owners’ rights or 2) they rejected any attempt to alter the objects.

1) When young children endorsed property rights, they did so by using the same criteria as adults and older children. Young children were not likely to assign control to original owners. Current ownership, whether initial or transferred, was the only thing that enabled control of property. Children do not indiscriminately adopt a “first-owner” principle, nor do they respond according to the intrinsic value of proposed actions. Rather, young children keep track of the ownership across transfers and assign rights accordingly, at least in the context of gift-giving.

2) The other response pattern was a denial that any character could exert control of an object over the objections of another. Thus, some younger children rejected all proposals. They denied control to original owners as well as recipient owners. Whenever young children assigned control to one actor rather than another they did so in the same way as did adults (pattern 1); that is, only ownership status was ever used as the basis for assigning property rights.

General conclusion

A majority of participants (including all adults) reliably indicated that an owner could control their property against the wishes of a non-owner. Participants responded that non-owners ought to defer to the wishes of owners regarding the use, alteration, lending, and disposal of those objects.

The researchers found that young children’s judgments are consistent with a “first-owner” model to a limited extent. Preschoolers often judged that initial owners retained some rights to their property; the rights of buyers or recipients of gifts were limited. For this reason, young children were less consistent in assigning owners control of property than were adults. However, the results also indicate that young children agreed with older children and adults in their identifications of ownership. They designated recipients as the owners in cases of gift-giving and buying, but not in cases of borrowing or finding.

The present study suggests developmental continuity in identification of ownership, although young children may have different ideas about what owners can do with their property, that is, they apply the concept of property and coordinate property rights together with other considerations such as outcomes, fairness, object attachment and interpersonal relationships differently from adults. The major difference between children and adults seems to be that adults have most clearly distinguished ownership rights from other considerations that affect decisions about property.

There is also the problem of narrative context. The stories may have involved more than ownership rights. Many young children may not distinguish what owners may and may not do from other considerations, such as what friends may and may not do. Structuring the narratives in a different way may yield quite different results.

One problem: other studies have found a strong first possessor bias in children, and claim that children do not fully understand ownership transfers until they are 10 years-old. Who is right then? Check: https://mind-cult.com/2019/02/16/exploring-the-first-possessor-bias-in-children-nole-keil/

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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.