Possession, Ownership and Property
This page is devoted to the topic of possession, ownership and property. Below you can find information about the POP Collection, the WU matters. WU talks. event "MEINS WIRD DEINS - Güter wechseln ihre Besiter*innen" and exciting findings to relevant questions on ownership. This site will be updated regularly to provide the latest insights on the topic.
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The POP ("Possession, Ownership and Property") collection contains some of the most important scholarly contributions on possession, ownership and property. It spans numerous disciplines and theories, from anthropology to psychology, sociology, history, law and political science.
Search the collection according to your interests: Possession, Ownership, Property - Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien (wu.ac.at)
Want to know about the opinions of international researchers and why the POP collection has a great value? Watch this video.
Find interesting facts about the topic here.
Why is ownership so important for us as humans?
Ownership has been relevant to humankind throughout history.
Historical evidence for the importance of the concept of ownership is manifold.
Archaeological record suggest that over 40 000 years ago social networks were formed to exchange owned materials and the development of numbers and writing in ancient Mesopotamia, 4000–5000 years ago, supposedly based on token systems to keep track of transactions involving property.
Ownership is important for us humans both in terms of
legal ownership (and its accompanying rights and responsibilities defined by legal systems) and
psychological ownership (the feeling that something is “MINE”).
Psychological ownership is a powerful force that shapes human behaviour in various,
positive and negative, ways:
As means of orientation
As facilitator of stewardship behaviour for public goods
By affecting caring, protection, assumption of responsibility, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and identification
By affecting our willingness to pay for a product and our purchase intentions
As source of information to predict how other people will act, to infer how they feel, and even to predict what they prefer
As it might result in refusal to share, burden of responsibility, anxiety, and stress
Sources: Kamleitner, B., 2019; Luks, F., 2019, p. 14; Peck, J. et al., 2021; Pierce, J. L. & Peck, J., 2018; Kirk, C. P. & Swain, S. D., 2018; Friedman, O., Pesowski, M. L. & Goulding, B. W., 2018; Pierce, J. L. & Peck, J., 2018; Nancekivell, S. E., Friedman, O. & Gelman, S. A, 2019
There may be many situations you can think of, in which ownership affects our attitudes, feelings and behavior. Let’s take a joint look into the future. Surely our ideas and feelings of ownership will continue to affect our behaviour …
maybe in new virtual realities?
maybe by affecting our reactions to climate change?
maybe by shaping our interaction with digital products?
|What do you think, where and how does it affect YOU?|
|In your personal life already and/or in the future?|
What does it take for people to feel ownership for their work, a brand, an organization, or even their country?
We can call many things mine, even if they cannot be legally owned by us. For example, one’s workstation at work, one’s favorite brand, or even one’s friends or a song.
In other words, we can feel psychological ownership for nearly everything.
So what does it take for people to feel ownership for something?
In general, psychological ownership of a target is a result of:
Having control over a target.
Knowing a target intimately.
Investing oneself into a target.
Although greater psychological ownership for one’s work, brand, organization, or country can lead to greater stewardship and engagement, it can also lead to a greater sense of territoriality, which can lead to the exclusion of others.
Sources: Harmeling et al., 2017; Pierce et al., 2001; Shu & Peck, 2018; Brown et al., 2014; Kirk et al., 2018; Verkuyten & Martinovic, 2017; Pierce et. al, 2001, 2003
What is the difference between possession, ownership and property?
|POSSESSION - CONTROL DON’T HAVE TO OWN IT|
“To be in possession of a thing is to acquire enough control to exclude others and thereafter to signal to others an intention to continue excluding others from the thing.” (Merrill, T. W., 2015)
|OWNERSHIP - LEGAL RIGHT; DON’T HAVE TO CONTROL IT|
“Both possession and ownership refer to control of things, in the sense of excluding others from things. But in fact, there are important differences. Possession requires that a person perform acts that are understood to constitute actual control over a thing. Ownership does not require actual control; one can own a thing without ever having been in actual control.” (Merrill, T. W., 2015)
“Similarly, possession requires that a person communicate an intention to remain in control over a thing. Again, no such intention is required of an owner; one can own a thing and intend never to actually control it.” (Merrill, T. W., 2015)
|PROPERTY - TANGIBLE AND INTANGIBLE PROPERTY|
“Strictly speaking, ‘property’ is a general term for the rules that govern people’s access to and control of things like land, natural resources, the means of production, manufactured goods, and also (on some accounts) texts, ideas, inventions, and other intellectual products.” (Waldron, J., 2020)
“Property concerns legal relations among people regarding control and disposition of valued resources.” (Singer, J. W., 2022)
|PSYCHOLOGICAL OWNERSHIP - IT’S MINE|
Psychological Ownership is “the state in which individuals feel as though the target of ownership or a piece of that target is ‘theirs.’” (Pierce, J. L., et al., 2001)
Is there a relation between sensory experiences (smelling, touching, seeing) and ownership?
There is a relation between sensory experiences and ownership.
In particular, sensory experiences help to stimulate psychological ownership.
This is because experiencing something with our senses means establishing an actual connection with it.
Merely touching an object results in an increase in psychological ownership of that object. Even just imagining to touch an object can increase psychological ownership of that object.
By the way: Any time people fantasize about an object or let their imagination play, these fantasies bond them to the object. In our fantasies we tend to feel like owners. Not getting what one imagined having can feel as if what one lost something that one never actually possessed.
Research also shows that even the smell of an object can induce psychological ownership. This is because smells are able to represent the essence of an object that is not physically present.
As a consequence, scented advertising, as opposed to non-scented advertising, increases product appeal. When people smell a scented ad, they like the advertised product more because they experience it as being closer to them and more “theirs”.
Sources: Kamleitner, B. & Feuchtl, S. (2015), Ruzeviciute, R., Kamleitner, B., and Biswas D. (2020),
Peck, J. and Shu S. B. (2009)
Is there a relationship between happiness and ownership?
The answer depends on what facet of ownership one looks at
Legal Ownership vs. Psychological Ownership
Having more legal property does not necessarily make people more happy. Too much possession can in fact hurt well-being. This is, in large part because having a lot means being surrounded by a lot of things that one has no relationship with.
Income and wealth, i.e. the money we own, does however relate to happiness. While you do not have to be super rich to be happy, being poor is detrimental to well-being. Moreover, people can spend their money in ways that “buys” happiness (donations included!). Some people are really good at spending their money in ways that make them happy.
How one thinks about money influences whether or not money can contribute to how happy one feels. Relatedly, there is evidence suggesting that people will often (not always!) end up being more happy when they spend (or even anticipate to spend) their money on experiences rather than things.
Particularly bad for one’s happiness is wanting to own more. Materialism even breeds loneliness.
Things are much clearer when it comes to “psychological” ownership, i.e. feeling real ownership for the things one has.
There is a positive link between happiness and the usage of products that one feels psychological ownership for. Momentary happiness leads to psychological appropriation, i.e. I am happy to I am more likely to claim things as mine, and vice versa, i.e. I feel that the things I interact with are mine and that makes me happy.
This is actually part of why consuming branded goods can make people feel better than consuming unbranded goods; in particular if brands promise to make us feel happy, chances are that we will feel more happy and more likely to claim them as our.
Sources: Belk, R. W. (1992); Kamleitner, B. (2014); Roster, C. A. (2014); Roster, C. A., et al. (2016); Myers, D. G. (2000); Easterlin, R. A. (2001); Jachimowicz, J. M., et al. (2020); Soto, C. J. and M. Luhmann (2013); Dunn, E. W., et al. (2020); Gleibs, I. H., et al. (2013); Carter, T. J. and T. Gilovich (2012); Nicolao, L., et al. (2009); Kumar, A., et al. (2014); Whillans, A. V., et al. (2017); Pieters, R. (2013)
What is the relation between use of common spaces and feelings of ownership?
Let’s do a small thought experiment – In the bench, where do you think you would sit?
Without divisions (boundaries), people tend to sit closer to the middle of the bench, but are generally well spread.
On the other hand, when a bench has boundaries, they serve as guidance its users.
So far, seemingly not much to do with ownership. But what if other people are also in the bench?
We find that when the bench has division people are more likely to sit down even if there are already 3 other people there. t(119) = 2.567, p = .011 (Boundaries: M = 4.13, SD = 2.13; No Boundaries: M = 3.13, SD = 2.14)
The explanation is that the addition of boundaries makes it easier to identify which space is already (temporarily) owned and to claim ownership over empty spaces.
Also interesting, in an observation study, we see that participants are generally more likely to sit when there are boundaries. In the condition lacking boundaries, the participants sitting tend to take more space than necessary – creating their own boundaries.
Such territorial behavior is also found in other contexts, e.g. organizations. Employees often create boundaries around their work space, directly or indirectly, by e.g. displaying family photos, or actively creating physical boundaries. Employees engaging in this sort of behavior tend to feel more psychological experience towards their organization. (Brown & Zhu, 2016)
Renato Regis, Bernadette Kamleitner, Monika Koller, and Carina Melanie Thuerridl (2019) ,"Inclusion By Division: When Boundaries Turn No Man’S Land Into Some Man’S Land", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 47, eds. Rajesh Bagchi, Lauren Block, and Leonard Lee, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 951-951.
Can we let go? Do we still feel ownership for things that we sell to others?
It can be hard to let go of things that are dear to us and it can be hard to accept things that one feels another person still wants. This is a challenge for the second hand movement and it explains why it is best to turn your flat or house into a “blank canvas” when you want to sell it.
Source: Graul, A. R. H. and Brough, A. R. (2020), Brough, A. R. and Isaac, M. S. (2012)
What do people feel more ownership for? Their mobile phones, their cars or even their families?
Mobile phone, car or family?
Make your pick!
In a representative survey (N = 314), about the same number of Austrians stated that they could not do without their
mobile phone (11%),
their car (9%) or
their family or partner (11%).
We asked the respective people how much ownership
(on a scale of 1= Any… to 7 = My…) they feel for
what they could not do without.
Austrians who could not do without their family or partner
feel more psychological ownership for
their families and partners (nfamily= 33; Mfamily = 6.45)
than Austrians, who could not do without their mobile phone or car, feel for their phones (nphone= 35, Mphone = 5.77, T(66) = 2.306,
p < .05) or cars (ncars= 29, Mcars = 5.76, T(60) = 2.123, p < .05).
Interestingly, if you ask Austrians who stated that they cannot do without their mobile phone, women feel significantly more psychological ownership for their cell phone on a scale from
1 = any mobile phone to 7 = my mobile phone than men do
women: n = 21, M = 6.19;
men: n = 14, M = 5.14; T(33) = 2.198, p < .05.
Source: ImFokus July 2021
Is there a link between ownership and privacy? Can we own our data?
Privacy and ownership are strongly related.
Personal information, a key element to privacy, is often treated like property. Personal data is traded in a market and people can feel a sense of ownership for their personal information.
The primary difference between privacy and property lies in their targets.
Privacy has been framed as a right to one’s own information and personal space, property as a right to one’s own possessions.
“Google’s augmented-reality glasses datafy the gaze.
Twitter datafies stray thoughts.
LinkedIn datafies professional networks.”
|So what is one’s “own” information? Does data about a person always belong to that person?|
This is a tricky question from a legal standpoint because there are so many different types of data available.
from one’s birthdate to the speed with which one swipes over different sites, to one’s heart rate, social media friends,
or one’s movement patterns tracked via our mobile phones.
Not all of these data allow the identification of an individual but the more of these seemingly meaningless data points one has, the easier it is to identify a person and learn a lot about her.
In addition, there is continuing debate about
what data companies can have a legitimate right to and
what it takes to ensure that people give their informed consent when giving up their data.
Beyond these difficulties, the question begs asking what consumers themselves think:
|Do we feel and behave like owners when it comes to data about us?|
Even if people can be possessive about and protective over some individual datapoints (such as their income), by and large it seems impossible to feel ownership for all one’s data and here is why (Kamleitner & Mitchell, 2018):
Sources: Kamleitner & Mitchell, 2018/2019; Kamleitner et al. 2018a/2018b
Bernadette Kamleitner adresses the question "Can we feel ownership for our personal data?" in this episode of “1 Paper 1 Minute”.
1 Paper 1 Minute - Bernadette…
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Bernadette Kamleitner, Researcher of the Month - März 2019
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