Tag Archives: property

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 This is exactly what I argue at the end of my (unpublished) paper comparing Hegel’s philosophy and current research on ownership: we first take possession of our bodies, gain autonomy, differentiate ourselves from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.

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.

 

On L. Marshall’s “Sharing, talking and giving”

Just finished reading “Sharing, talking and giving” (Marshall, 1961). Great article. As the author summarizes it: “This paper describes customs, practised by the !Kung Bushmen in the Nyae Nyae region of South Africa, which help them to avoid situations that are likely to arouse ill will and hostility among individuals within the bands and between bands. Two customs which seem to be especially helpful and which I describe in detail are meat-sharing and gift-giving. I mention also the !Kung habits of talking, aspects of their good manners, their borrowing and lending, and their not stealing.”

A couple of details were interesting for me:

Taking possession: When they hunt, “The owner of the animal is the owner of the first arrow to be effectively shot into the animal so that it penetrates enough for its poison to work. That person is responsible for the distribution”. Note: the owner is not the head of the band, or the person who organized the hunt, or the person who shot the arrow. The owner of the animal is the owner of the arrow (who often is not even be part of the hunting expedition). Ownership of the tool (arrow) becomes ownership of the hunted animal.

Associative reciprocity: !Kung Bushmen make presents. And the motives for this “are the same as in gift-giving in general: to measure up to what is expected of them, to make friendly gestures, to win favour, to repay past favours and obligations, and to enmesh others in future obligation. I am sure that when feelings of genuine generosity and real friendliness exist they would also be expressed by giving”. A nice list that sums up what I mean by “associative reciprocity”. As Demi, a !Kung informant, tells the anthropologist: “a !Kung never refuses a gift. And a !Kung does not fail to give in return. Toma said that would be ‘neglecting friendship’.”

Marshall, L. (1961). Sharing, talking, and giving: Relief of social tensions among! Kung Bushmen. Africa, 31(3), 231–249.

Mine

The possessive word mine, typically uttered over and over again from the end of the second year, means that it is not yours. It marks the emergence of a new affirmation of the self in relation to others.

In: Rochat, P., 2009. Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 157.

My own

When I aquire a thing (I buy it, build it, receive it as a present, etc.), it becomes a part of my embodied self. (See: Rochat, 2009: Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 147.) Also: “the claim of ownership is an emotionally based appropriation of things that are assimilated to the self. It delimits and defines the self in relation to others (ibid., p. 158).

Rhetoric of possession

So writes my friend Philippe Rochat (2009):

I would argue that much of the possession game is to seduce others, or at least gain recognition from those we select to maintain social closeness with, gaining reputation and social ascendance over them. Possessions, the ways we possess and how we display or carry them, are instrumental in our constant attempt at controlling what people see of us. We incorporate all of our possessions as part of “Me,” in William Jame’s sense, “Me” as a conceptual and constructed notion of self that is projected into the public eye for evaluation.

Another way to say the same: we arrange our possessions with rhetorical sagacity and with an audience in mind.  

See: Rochat, P. (2009). Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 147.