**How children develop an understanding of ownership**
Anecdotally, we have all seen that children can be possessive with their objects. But knowledge of who owns an object is not obvious from looking at it, so how and when do children come to know that something belongs to them versus someone else? How do they keep track of an object’s history and discriminate their object from other similar objects? Researchers have started to look at this question with clever experiments with 2 and 3 year olds that disentangle which factors children pay attention to when determining ownership (Gelman, Manczak & Noles, 2012).
- Set 1: a set of three different objects, but from the same category (e.g., three different looking car, animal, or food toys)
- Set 2: a set of three objects that are identical (e.g., three of the same toy cars, animals, or foods)
- Set 3: a set of three objects, two of which are from the same category (e.g., two different cars) and one object which is plain and undesirable (e.g, a piece of Styrofoam or cardboard)
- A tray to place the three objects on during the question phase
Sit at a table with the child with the objects out of view.
Trial 1: Start with the objects from Set 1, which you will take out one at a time. For this set, it does not matter which of the three objects are assigned to you or the child. For the labeling phase, bring out the first object and say “This is yours; this is for [child’s name],” and put it in front of the child. Then, bring out the second object, show it to the child, and say, “This is mine; this is for [your name],” and place it in front of yourself. Finally, bring out the third object, hold it up to show the child, and say, “See this; look at this,” and then place it on the table equidistant from the other two objects. For the question phase, take the three objects and place them on a tray in the order that they were first presented as the child watches. Then ask: (a) “Which one is yours?” and (b) “Which one is mine?” and note whether the child picks the correct objects for the two questions.
Trial 2: Follow the above procedure with the objects from Set 2 and note the responses. For this set, it does not matter which of the three objects are assigned to you or the child since they are identical.
Trial 3: Follow the above procedure with the objects from Set 3 and note the responses. For this set, be sure to assign the plain object to the child.
Notes & Observations
What did you observe? Did your child keep track of which object he was assigned for each set of objects? Were any of the sets easier or harder?
Research Findings & Extension
The results of the study were different based on the age of the child and the make-up of the set of objects. Both 2 and 3 year olds were good at the task with varied sets of objects like Set 1, meaning that they kept track of them and correctly answered the questions about which object was assigned to themselves and the researcher. The set of identical object was more difficult for the 2 year olds but the 3 years did well on this task, meaning that they tracked their object “through space and time” using the information they were told – even though all three objects looked exactly the same. Although the researchers didn’t try this, it would be fun to see just how good children are at tracking their object visually, Three-Card Monte style J Finally, the set where the child gets the plain object was hardest for the 2 year olds who actually did a better job of keeping track of the researcher’s more interesting object than their own. The researchers also looked at a phenomenon called the “endowment effect” where people tend to like something more just because they own it – there’s a lot more to study about ownership, but it’s clearly an understanding that takes root early on.
Gelman, S., Manczak, E., & Noles, N. (2012). The nonobvious basis of ownership: Preschool children trace the history and value of owned objects. Child Development, 83, 1731-1747.