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Bernadette Kamleitner

Video Bernadette Kamleitner

Bernadette Kamleitner

Researcher of the Month

All that’s under control is all mine!

We develop our sense of ownership very early in our lives, when we are still toddlers. But this type of ownership is not a legal concept. It’s a psychological mechanism that finds its purest expression in the word “mine.” WU Professor Bernadette Kamleitner investigates how and why we develop a sense of ownership, and draws interesting conclusions for better product design, better data security, and stronger involvement in environmental protection measures.

“We’ve all been there: We arrive early at the venue of an event, choose a seat, leave a jacket or bag on the seat to indicate that it’s taken, and then we leave the room for a moment. When we return to the seat as the event is about to start, we find that the jacket was moved two seats further on and someone else is sitting in our place. Our psychological perception is that someone has taken “our” seat. We have a psychological sense of ownership even though legally, the seat belongs to whoever hosts the event,” explains Professor Kamleitner, head of the WU Institute for Marketing and Consumer Research. In various studies, she has looked at the factors that influence our perception of ownership and its consequences. Together with her fellow researchers, Professor Kamleitner confirmed that three key mechanisms are at work in different contexts: perceived control, psychological investment, and knowledge and familiarity.


If I can’t control it, I don’t really own it

Several studies by Professor Kamleitner and her team show that people tend to develop a sense of ownership especially for products with good ergonomics. The reason is that ergonomic products can be controlled very well. One of the findings is, for example, that cell phone users had a greater sense of psychological ownership if the ratio between their thumb length and the size of the cell phone display was ideal. This means that people with shorter fingers were more likely to feel psychological ownership of cell phones that were small enough to fit their hands well. Their sense of ownership was weaker in the case of cell phones with larger displays (that were therefore harder to control). And it was exactly the other way around for people with long fingers. “If we feel that we can control something particularly well, that we literally have a good handle on it, we are likely to experience a stronger sense of ownership. As a consequence, people also tend to look after such things more carefully,” says Professor Kamleitner.

the study


More investment, more ownership

Psychological investment is a major factor for ownership. The more someone invests in or sacrifices for something, the stronger his or her sense of ownership. “This is also an important principle for crowdfunding activities. People invest in something, develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for it, and they may come back again to invest even more,” Kamleitner explains. The importance of psychological investment is also highlighted by another study, which looks at different payment methods. The research showed that the feeling of ownership is stronger for people who pay cash for their purchases than for people who pay by card. One of the reasons, according to Bernadette Kamleitner, is that the investment is more visible and more tangible when paying cash.

 the study

Ownership based on familiarity

Professor Kamleitner’s research also confirms that ownership depends on how knowledgeable and familiar we are with something. “The more I know about something, the more likely I am to feel that it’s mine. From this, it follows that our sense of ownership is not only limited to products.” This conclusion has been substantiated by an experiment that Professor Kamleitner conducted together with one of her colleagues. “We divided our subjects into two groups and asked each group to complete a quiz on environmental issues. One quiz was harder, one was easier. Those who completed the easier quiz and scored higher afterwards felt that they knew more about the environment and subsequently also showed greater interest in environmental protection.” For this particular study, the researchers were honored with the EACR Best Paper Award.

The study