Research Assistant Professor of Marketing
Professor of Management & Organizations
From our earliest days in the sandbox, we’re taught to avoid being too possessive. “Sharing is caring!” countless parents have said after their kid aggressively snatched a bucket back from a friend.
But a new study from the Kellogg School reveals that enjoying your own possessions can be caring too. Indeed, psychological ownership—the feeling that connects people to what they own and makes them view those items as extensions of themselves—can actually increase do-gooding behavior.
“When people experience a sense of ownership, they are more likely to help,” says Ata Jami, a research assistant professor of marketing at Kellogg, who conducted the research along with Maryam Kouchaki, an associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School.
While you might expect ownership to bring about feelings of greed, and therefore curb the desire to help others, the researchers predicted just the opposite, based on their understanding of how self-esteem works.
“We know, regardless of your overall trait level of self-esteem, ownership can actually give you a temporary boost in your self-esteem,” Jami explains.
And higher self-esteem, in turn, has been shown to increase prosocial behavior. After all, once you feel good about yourself, you want to maintain that feeling—something you can achieve by behaving in a socially desirable way.
To test their hypothesis about the unexpected upsides of ownership, the team recruited a group of 135 students. The students were asked to complete a short survey with the promise of $15.
When they arrived for the study, they learned they were the proud new owners of a coffee mug. Half the participants merely saw the mugs (the no-touch group), while the other half were encouraged to pick up and hold their mugs (the touch group).
“When a product or object is in your hand, you have more control over it. You can turn it, look at a different side of it—you experience it more.”
— Ata Jami
The researchers knew from previous studies that touching an object increases psychological ownership. “When a product or object is in your hand, you have more control over it,” Jami explains. “You can turn it, look at a different side of it—you experience it more.”
And the stronger sense of ownership brought about by touching the mugs, they reasoned, could activate the increased self-esteem and tendency toward prosocial behavior.
After participants either saw or touched their new mugs, they completed a brief survey about their mood. Next, they were given a chance to volunteer their time: the researchers asked participants to help (ostensibly) another research group by completing an additional five-minute survey for no extra pay.
As the researchers expected, the touch group, with its heightened sense of ownership, was more likely to pitch in than the no-touch group: 80 percent of participants in the touch group opted to complete the extra study, compared with 62.9 percent in the no-touch group.
The researchers wanted a little extra confirmation of their hypothesis, because, Jami says, “we are arguing that regardless of the route you use to activate a sense of ownership, it should have the same effect on prosocial behavior.”
Like touch, customization had been shown in previous studies to engender a sense of ownership. So, for their next study, the researchers used personalization to get participants to feel possessive.
Half of 217 online participants were told they were designing a mug for themselves (the ownership group), while the rest were told they were designing a mug for a typical customer of a coffee business (the control group). Then, all participants got to select a slogan, font, and design elements for their mug.
After completing their custom mugs, participants in the control group were asked to write a few sentences about what they liked and disliked about their creations. In the ownership group, participants were asked to write about the imagined experience of drinking coffee or tea from their mugs.
Then participants were told they would receive extra pay. The researchers gave participants the option to donate as much of the extra payment as they wanted to COVID-19 relief, saying they would match participants’ donations. Participants were also told that they could keep any portion of the extra pay they decided not to donate.
Once again, participants whose sense of ownership had been activated were more generous than those in the control group: in the ownership group, 67.3 percent of participants donated all or part of their extra payment, compared with 55.8 percent of participants in the control group.
While the first two studies demonstrated that activating ownership can increase prosocial behavior, the team hadn’t yet revealed why people suddenly found so much goodness in their hearts. So, for their next experiment, they wanted to focus on the mechanism they suspected: self-esteem.
They recruited 208 online participants, asking half to write a few sentences about a time they experienced a strong feeling of ownership (the ownership group) and the other half to write about a typical day (the control group). Participants also answered a series of questions designed to measure self-esteem, rating from one to seven how strongly they agreed with statements such as “I am satisfied with myself.”
Then they were presented with a scenario: the person in front of you in line at a coffee shop has forgotten their wallet. Participants rated from one to seven how likely they were to pick up the stranger’s tab.
As in the first two studies, participants in the ownership group were more likely to help out than those in the control group (an average of 4.71 out of seven, compared with 4.13). What’s more, participants in the ownership group reported higher levels of self-esteem than those in the control group (an average of 5.61 out of seven, compared with 5.26). And further statistical analysis revealed that self-esteem was driving the greater likelihood that the ownership-group participants would help.
But the social benefit of ownership has its limits, the researchers found.
In another experiment, they looked at what happened when they reminded people of the negative aspects of their possessions. This, they suspected, might sever the link between ownership and self-esteem—and, therefore, the greater impulse toward do-gooding.
All 406 online participants read a brief scenario about a new cell phone. Half read the story in the first person, where they themselves bought a new phone (the ownership group), while the rest reflected on another person, Alex, buying a new phone (the control group).
Then each group of participants was split in half again: some participants were asked to reflect on positive features of the new phone, while other participants were told that the new phone didn’t work very well and were asked to read about its issues.
Next, participants rated their self-esteem. Then, they rated their likelihood of helping out across eight different scenarios, such as giving money to a homeless person.
The researchers’ analysis revealed that the participants who had reflected on owning a cell phone with positive attributes felt a higher sense of self-esteem than those who had read about negative attributes and those who had read about Alex’s phone. They were also more likely to help out than those whose new phone didn’t work well and those who had read about Alex’s phone.
“Ownership does not always lead to prosocial behavior,” Jami cautions. “We feel a boost of self-esteem because of the positive attributes of the things we own. But if we think about their negative features, we do not see a boost in self-esteem, and as a result, we don’t see a boost in prosocial behavior.”
Jami says the research offers clear lessons for philanthropic organizations.
There’s a good reason those public-radio mugs are so ubiquitous: “Activating a sense of ownership can potentially increase people’s contributions toward these prosocial causes.”
The finding could come in handy in other settings too. Allowing for customization of a service—like selecting from an array of pillows and bedding in a hotel room or seating styles in a movie theater—could activate a consumer’s sense of ownership over a place or experience, and might yield positive effects for everyone, Jami suggests.
“Prosocial behavior will increase,” he says, “so that customers and employees would be happier, and have a better experience.”