How two-year-olds work out who owns what

If you think about it, ownership is a rather slippery concept, one based on all sorts of abstract social and economic principles. Now in one of the first studies of its kind, Ori Friedman and Karen Neary have investigated whether and how two-, three- and four-year-olds determine who owns what.

Their findings suggest that young children judge ownership based on who is first in possession of a given object. In an initial study, children aged between two and four were told a simple story about a boy and a girl playing with a toy, after which they were asked to say who owned the toy. If the story described the girl as playing with the toy first, then the children tended to say she owned the toy, and vice versa if the boy was described as playing with the toy first.

But what if the children were simply attributing ownership to whichever person was first associated with the toy, rather than in possession of it? A further experiment involved telling the children that the girl likes the toy, and then that the boy likes the toy. However, in this case, the children were no more likely to say the girl owned the toy than the boy did, even though the girl had been associated with the toy first (the same was true with the sexes reversed).

Finally, Friedman and Neary wanted to see how easily the first possession rule could be overcome in the context of gift giving. When the young children were told that the boy has a ball which he then gives to the girl as a present, they still tended to say that the boy owns the ball (the reverse being true if the story began with the girl in possession). However, when the gift giving was made more explicit (a wrapped present on the girl’s birthday), then the first possession rule was broken, and the young children correctly realised that the girl now owned the gift.

The researchers said the most important next step was to find out where young children get this rule about first possession from. They surmised that it could be learned from hearing utterances like ‘‘It’s her doll, she had it first’’, or it could be innate, the product of a “cognitive system dedicated to reasoning about ownership.”

FRIEDMAN, O., NEARY, K. (2008). Determining who owns what: Do children infer ownership from first possession?. Cognition, 107(3), 829-849. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.12.002

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

11 thoughts on “How two-year-olds work out who owns what”

  1. They needed to research this? Don’t these people have kids?“I had it. It’s mine. Waaaaaaaa….!”

  2. “I had it first” is alot different to “The girl had it first”

  3. It doesn’t matter. Twelve years of learning socialism in one of those government indoctrination centers they call “public” schools will rid them of any respect for private property rights.

  4. maybe one of your next tests could supply children with raw materials, then ask who owns the results after labor & creativity are added. another would allow them to gather material from nature or trash cans…property is inate, cooperation is learnedalso please ask:Do You Own Yourself ?“Property” is not simply some social invention, Every living thing must occupy space and consume energy from outside itself if it is to survive. if we will respect the property claims of one another and work together, each of us can enjoy more property in our lives than if we try to function independently of one another.

  5. Somebody teach those mini-humans the concept of a receipt in case a jack-booted thug insists the ball still belongs to corporate America and must be returned under threat of incarceration after facing a HUGE staff of in-house lawyers who can use the legal system to grind down the commoners.

  6. Question for PauPer:Do you think we own ourselves in the same way that we own property? Do you think that you can transfer ownership of yourself to someone else, just as you can give someone a gift?

  7. Sovereign ownership, Not in the same way as physical, earthly property that may require a title. I do transfer a present ownership interest in myself when I contract out my labor/time. I promise an ownership interest in my future when I borrow. If you 'owe' someone, they 'own' a part of you! this would include sexual prostitution & organ sales.

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