We're Only Human

An intuitive sense of property

Americans like to own their homes, and the rules and conventions for ownership are generally well understood. So it’s easy to forget that in many corners of the globe the rules are more ambiguous–and more open to challenge. Indeed, there are an estimated one billion squatters in the world today–people who, mostly out of necessity, are living on property they do not own and cannot afford.

Squatters rarely have a voice, but in a few industrialized cities where they do, their claims are usually founded on the idea of improvement. If an owner abandons or neglects a property, shouldn’t another human being be allowed to take shelter, invest sweat equity in making it a home, and lay some claim to it? In other words, does hard work improving a property convey some right to occupancy, even ownership?

New research suggests that our moral judgments about property ownership may be an intuitive process–one more fundamental than society’s laws and regulations. Psychological scientist Patricia Kanngiesser and colleagues at the University of Bristol, UK, studied three and four-year-old children (as well as adults) to see how children think about private property before they come under the influence of adult rules. Previous research had shown that very young children tend to honor the rights of the first owner as a default position–as long as they are given no compelling reason to think differently. But the scientists wanted to see if creative labor is such a compelling reason–that is, if improving property trumps the original ownership rights.

To test this idea in the lab, they used a form of property that children might realistically “own”–clay animals. Both the experimenter and the subjects were given title to a set of clay cookie-cutter animals, each set different: blue ducks, for example, or red butterflies. Then each of them “borrowed” and worked on one of the other’s animals, using cookie cutters to transform the clay into something new–an elephant, for example. Or, alternatively, they simply held the animal for a bit, or snipped off a small piece of clay with a knife. The idea was to compare mere possession with two levels of creative labor, to see if any of these affected views of ownership.

And they did, in some interesting ways. As reported on-line this week in the journal Psychological Science, all of the subjects–children and adults–were much more likely to transfer ownership of the property to a second person if that person showed some industry in changing the property. And the more work, the greater the entitlement: That is, transforming the animal into a new animal was more significant than just snipping off some clay, which was more significant than merely holding the animal. Even if they transformed a duck into a different kind of duck, that was sufficient for entitlement, though changing a duck into an elephant conveyed somewhat more in the way of ownership rights. In other words, it was work that mattered most; creativity was important but secondary.

But here’s the really interesting part: These views of ownership and labor were much more common in the preschool children than in the adults. Adults were much more likely to give priority to the original owner–and much less likely to value labor and creativity. In that sense, adults appear to have outgrown their intuitive belief in squatters’ rights, replacing this sensibility with formal laws and regulations.

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