Most of us have had this experience in one form or another: you’re at a public pool and you leave a beach towel on a chair to save your spot while you swim. When you get out to dry off, you find someone has moved your towel, taken what was your chair, and is busy talking and laughing with not a care in the world. It’s not worth the energy a confrontation would require, but still, the irritation lingers—you feel what happened violates an unwritten rule.
Experiencing a sense of ownership is normal and innate to us as humans. We may have our office, our favorite park, or even our neighborhood. While we don’t legally own these, we often feel a sense of ownership.
That feeling that we own something is called psychological ownership, and it carries both positives and negatives. An example of psychological ownership’s negative dark side is road rage: There’s a misplaced sense of ownership—thinking “that’s my parking space” or “I own the space around my car”—that manifests as a territorial behavior or response.
Along with my coauthors, Colleen P. Kirk of the New York Institute of Technology and Scott D. Swain of Clemson University, we wanted to examine this darker side of psychological ownership in consumer contexts. How do consumers perceive and define their ownership spaces, both tangible and intangible? How do they decide when transgression occurs, and whether and how to respond?
Designing the study series
We designed a series of five experimental studies using 1,174 participants that tested different targets of ownership (a coveted object such as a sweater, a cup of coffee, or a personally designed item) in five distinct lab environments, including a hypothetical nonprofit, a sidewalk café, and a retail store.
The experiments gauged how participants communicated or “signaled” their perceived ownership of the target, how they inferred that another may also feel ownership, and the range of participants’ territorial responses to this infringement. The territorial responses were measured using both open and close-ended questions and through behavioral observation.
Understanding territorial response
Our findings were consistent across all five studies. When participants felt what we called “high psychological ownership” of a target, and another signaled that they also felt ownership over the same target, we observed territorial, and even retaliatory, responses and behaviors.
In the second study, for example, participants were asked to design a folder to be used to hold environmental education materials for children. If a participant was invested in their personal design and consequently felt high psychological ownership, and it was infringed upon—the nonprofit assistant remarked that it looked just like someone else’s—the participant said nothing when the assistant “accidentally” dropped her pen on the way out. Letting the infringer lose her pen was a retaliatory response.
The fifth study looked at patterns of high and low narcissism, revealing another interesting finding. The results suggest that narcissists perceive a greater sense of infringement than non-narcissists because they feel they’ve already signaled their ownership of a target and felt that others should have picked up on this, even though they haven’t.
Our research also suggests important implications for retailers and marketers. Retailers can inadvertently infringe on customers with the pronouns they use. If a retailer says, “let me show you my offerings” to a consumer with a high sense of ownership, that can backfire. The consumer might think, “Your offerings? I thought they were my offerings.” One study had participants at a restaurant “customize” their coffee (instilling a greater sense of ownership by tailoring it to their tastes), then the waitperson deliberately moved it a few inches. Feeling infringed upon by the waitperson’s actions, the diner left earlier than planned, and indicated that they may never return to the restaurant again.
Future avenues of research might explore whether individuals feel a sense of infringement and have a territorial reaction to something that is collectively owned, such as a crowdfunded startup or a crowdsourced brand name. For now, it’s clear that when high psychological ownership meets another’s signal of ownership over the same target, infringement and territorial responses will most likely result.
Read the paper “Property Lines in the Mind: Consumers’ Psychological Ownership and Their Territorial Responses,” published by Journal of Consumer Research.
Joann Peck is the Irwin Maier Professor of Business and an associate professor in the Department of Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business.