Monday, October 14, 2013

How do you decide who owns something?

Ownership is an important part of our daily lives, but most of us do not spend much time thinking about how we make decisions about who owns things.  We care about ownership, because the owner of an object gets to decide what is done with it.  Owners also benefit from the value of the object.

It might seem straightforward to decide who owns something, but it quickly becomes clear that things are more complicated than they seem.  Consider just a simple trip to the store.  You walk into a department store, and you know that all of the objects are owned by the store.  If you take one off the shelf, you are expressing an interest in owning the object, but you don’t own it yet.  So, just holding something does not make it yours.  If you pay the price of the object to the store, exchanging money for the object, it becomes yours, even while you are still standing in the store.  So, the exchange matters.  If you run out of the store with the object, then you have it in your possession, but the object still belongs to the store. 

What kinds of principles to people use to make judgments about ownership?

This question was explored in an interesting paper by Max Palamar, Doan Le, and Ori Friedman in a 2012 paper in the journal Cognition.  They looked at the relationship between people’s beliefs about who is responsible for an action and who owns an object.

When you are in the store, bringing an item to the cashier is your way of announcing that you would like to own it.  When the cashier accepts your money, you and the store are reaching an agreement about ownership.  In this way, you are both responsible for the decision about who owns the object.

The authors of this research paper look at situations where an object is not currently owned by anyone.  When people judge who is responsible for an action, they often focus on whether someone intended to bring about a particular result and whether their action actually led to the desired result.

In one example they use, a man named Mike sees a feather on top of a cactus in the desert.  If Mike wants to get the feather for himself, and he knocks it down with a stick, then we clearly think he is responsible for getting the feather out of the cactus.  If he knocks his stick against the cactus and the feather falls out without the intention to get the feather, then we think Mike is less responsible for getting the feather out.

What would happen in these cases if after the feather fell from the cactus a second man walked up to the feather as it was lying on the ground and picked it up?  Who would be the owner of the feather?

In several studies, people judge that Mike has more right to be the owner of the feather than Dave when he is more responsible for the action of freeing the feather.  So, when Mike wants the feather and takes an action that leads the feather to fall, then people think he should get the feather.  If Mike dislodges the feather accidentally, then people think he has less claim to owning it then if he deliberately dislodges the feather.

Why should we reason about ownership and responsibility in similar ways? 

One reason why this makes sense is because of the importance of control in ownership.  Because owning something allows me to control what is done with it, I am a better owner of that object when I have already done things to take responsibility for actions related to that object.  So, having an intention related to the object and carrying out an action that fulfills that intention demonstrates that a person deserves the control over that object that comes with being an owner.