How does the psychology of ownership differ between Western and Eastern cultures?

Michael Jackson’s glove sold for $350,000 at
a New York auction in 2009. In India,
celebrity possessions are not valued so highly. 

By guest blogger Bruce Hood.

Many of us are nostalgic for original, authentic experiences and prepared to pay for them. For example, not so long ago vinyl records were ubiquitous but nowadays they are considered collectibles, with some attracting a high price. Even with the most mundane record, there is still a tangible tactile experience to possessing these items that iTunes cannot re-create. It’s not just collectors. Most of us prefer to own and derive great pleasure from original items – a theme explored in Paul Bloom’s highly entertaining 2011 TED talk, “The Nature of Pleasure”.

The psychology of possessions reveals that many of us imbue important items with an integral property or essence that defines their true identity. The origin of such thinking can be traced to Plato’s notion of form, but it still operates today as the intuition that significant things are irreplaceable, even by identical duplicates that are physically indistinguishable from the original.

The concept of essentialism also helps explain our pre-occupation with our own stuff. This is the idea that every object is imbued with unique defining characteristics. One essentialist perspective is that our possessions represent who we are, and are even imbued by us in some way. Clearly some objects are entirely pragmatic and functional but others form part of an “extended self” (Belk, 1988; pdf). It may be our car, our clothes or the records we collect. A manifestation of the extended self is the endowment effect (pdf) whereby individuals value their personal possessions more than identical objects owned by others. However, the endowment effect and the extended self are not culturally universal. For example, a recent study (pdf) of the Tanzanian Hazda hunter-gather tribe revealed that they do not show the endowment effect, possibly because they have so few personal possessions.

Others want to emulate their heroes or make a connection with them in some tangible material form by owning their personal possessions. Essentialism explains why memorabilia collectors are not always motivated by financial rewards but rather with a passion to establish a tactile connection with the previous owners they admire. One plausible mechanism aligned with essentialism is positive contamination (pdf) – the notion that coming into direct contact with an item, such as a piece of clothing, can transfer some the previous owner’s essence.

We have been researching authenticity and essentialism in our lab using a duplication scenario. It’s based on a conjuring trick that convinces pre-schoolers that we have a machine that can duplicate objects. In our first study (pdf), we showed that children with sentimental attachment to a teddy bear would not accept an apparent duplicate toy. They also thought that original cups and spoons owned by Queen Elizabeth II were more valuable than identical duplicates even though they reasoned that duplicated silver objects were physically equivalent to originals. In other words, they appreciated the additional value conferred to memorabilia by celebrity association.

In our most recent study conducted via the MTurk platform, we asked Western (mostly US) and Eastern (mostly Indian) adults to estimate the value of four types of collectible: a work of art, a celebrity sweater, a dinosaur bone and moon rock. We then told them about the machine that can create an identical duplicate and asked them to value the copy. In two studies of over 800 adults we found the same basic pattern. Overall, both cultures think originals are worth more than copies, but the two cultures diverge on the celebrity clothing. Unlike Westerners, the Eastern adults saw the duplicate as not significantly different from the original. These results support the hypothesis that individualistic cultures in the West place a greater value on objects associated with unique persons, which explains why the valuation of certain authentic items may vary cross-culturally.

It’s not that Eastern cultures like India do not have celebrities – they are fanatical about their Bollywood stars – but the desire to collect celebrity possessions may not be such a cultural tradition in collectivist societies. Eastern cultures also exhibit essentialist contagion in their rituals and concerns about moral contamination (the caste system being the notable example) but essentialist concerns are primarily heightened for negative contamination as opposed to positive transfer, which is what is believed to be operating in celebrity clothing.

It is not clear how the desire for authenticity and essentialism will change as cultural differences increasingly disappear in a digitizing world of accessible duplication and downloads, but I expect that desire for originality will always be at the core of human psychology as a component of self-identity. We are the only species that really seems to care about originals.


Apicella, C., Azevedo, E., Fowler, J., & Christakis, N. (2014). Evolutionary Origins of the Endowment Effect: Evidence from Hunter-Gatherers SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2255650

Gjersoe, N., Newman, G., Chituc, V., & Hood, B. (2014). Individualism and the Extended-Self: Cross-Cultural Differences in the Valuation of Authentic Objects PLoS ONE, 9 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0090787

–further reading–
The Psychology of Stuff and Things.

Post written by Bruce Hood (@ProfBruceHood) for the BPS Research Digest. Hood is University of Bristol Professor of Developmental Psychology in Society. He is elected Fellow of the BPS, Royal Institution, Society of Biology and the Association for Psychological Science. Also, President of the Psychology section of the British Science Association.

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