A Researcher’s Perspective on Ownership: Bart Claus – We are what we have. Or were we?


TSOO: You have been doing research  in the field of ownership, could you please tell us the main insights?

To me ownership is one of the most fundamental phenomena in consumer behavior, even in human behavior in general. You see this when looking at how big a part of their active lives people commit to paying off a mortgage – 30 years standard in the U.S., but even longer in other countries. You see this in fashion item purchases. Even kids at very young age organize their worlds based on who owns what. Our sense of ownership is solidly hardwired in our human brain. Consequently, in my research I find that merely being assigned ownership literally changes peoples’ perspectives. Not only do they value their possessions more – a traditional effect – but physiological effects ensure that they literally see and remember objects more in detail, and see more difference with similar objects. In other words: everybody sees their own possessions as more unique than they actually are.

Furthermore, people mentally process owned objects as being closer to themselves – similar to processing objects that are physically close, or even similar to thinking about close friends and family. These findings make it easier to understand why we use the “my” that we use for “my socks” also for the chair that I happen to sit on (“my seat”) but also for “my friends” and “my home” (different of course from “my house”). These findings also clarify the central role possessions play in people’s identities, together with everything else we address with “my”. It is difficult to claim you are a sportswoman or –man if you don’t invest in the right apparel. Without owning a vast collection of records, it will be more difficult to pass yourself off as music lover.

Looking at that, these are interesting times. Until now, people often measured a successful life by the collection of items accumulated over this life, and often it was even exactly this collection that represented the life and owner’s identity itself. More and more, we engage in “liquid consumption” that in many cases doesn’t leave the trace of ownership. The emerging sharing economy, is one such example. In another research project, I look at the creation and destruction of value through sharing, finding that overall, sharing does create value. However, with the central role of ownership in our psychological and social structures, it remains to be seen how we will define identities and evaluate lives in which all accumulation of ownership has been replaced by access to shared goods, and how or life satisfaction will be affected.

Dr. Bart Claus (PhD in Applied Economic Sciences, KU Leuven) is an Assistant Professor of Marketing and Academic Director of the MSc. in International Business at IÉSEG School of Management in Paris, France. His research in consumer behavior focuses on the interplay between consumers’ social and personal identities on one hand, and consumer choice and ownership on the other hand. This research has attracted national and international funding, and has been published and presented widely in academic journals and conferences, and practitioner print outlets. In the past, he has consulted both companies and governments on marketing and communication strategy and issues related to behavioral change. He has experience in teaching from bachelor to executive level. If you want to know more about Bart, feel free to visit his profile at IÈSEG School of Management [CLICK HERE].


This article was originally published in transfer – Werbeforschung & Praxis, (03/ 2017) 

Traces left by previous owners and evaluation of used goods

How do visible traces of previous owners on products in secondary markets affect buyers’ evaluations? This is an interesting question for secondary markets like eBay, where thousands of used goods are sold and products start a second life after having being disposed by their initial owners. However, as many consumers tend to customize or personalize their products, this may leave on the products visible traces of the previous owners. How does that affect potential buyers’ evaluations of these goods? Jungkeun Kim (Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand) examined this question in several studies. He found that buyers evaluate used goods with salient traces of previous owners less positively because the salience of these traces makes it harder for potential buyers to psychologically appropriate the product and develop feelings of psychological ownership. Analyses of actual transactions from eBay.com also confirmed this effect. Apparently, making used goods ours presupposes forgetting that they used to be someone else’s; and erasing previous owners’ traces – even literally, e.g. with a cleaning service, as these studies show – may help overcome these psychological barriers that may prevent us from buying used goods.

You can read more about this research here.

It’s the best time of the year to say thank you – to all of you and to Floyd Rudmin, in particular!

This time of the year is always a good chance to step back from our busy schedules and take some time to express our gratitude toward significant people in our lives. We have very good reasons to do so this year! Besides thanking you all for your interest in and support of this blog, we want to express our deepest gratitude to Floyd Rudmin (University of Tromsø). He has made us and by extension all of you a truly unique pre-Christmas gift.

Floyd, a prominent pioneer and incomparable maverick in the field of ownership, has generously donated his invaluable and truly interdisciplinary collection of books on ownership and possession to m.core (Institute for Marketing and Consumer Research) at WU Vienna. We see ourselves as stewards of this treasure and are doing our best to preserve and extend this resource and to make it accessible to as many as possible. Floyd’s collections consists of over 130 books and numerous copies of book chapters and journal articles. Throughout his decades-spanning career he has meticulously gathered titles across a variety of disciplines ranging from anthropology over psychology, sociology, and history to law and political sciences.

We are very happy and thankful that this true treasure of literature on ownership has now found a new home at WU. The collection can now be found at a separate location in the WU library. We are sure that this will be a great opportunity for the entire community to visit our university in Vienna and have a look for yourselves at this marvelous collection – which we are continuously growing (further suggestions are more than welcome!). In addition we are trying to digitize everything where the rights allow doing so and we will host a link to the full collection as soon as this is searchable.

In the spirit of the days, we could not stress enough how great it is when “mine” becomes “ours” and eventually “everyone’s”. Thank you so much Floyd for your generous gesture and this intellectually rewarding transfer of ownership! We would like to invite all blog readers to freely spread the word about it and help us grow this collection.

We wish you all a Merry Holiday Season and a joyful, inspiring and fulfilling New Year 2018!

One for you, one for me: Giving shared gifts

We know from past research on the mere ownership effect that people tend to like their possessions merely because they own them. But do people also like their possessions more merely because others own them too? Evan Polman (University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA) and Sam J. Maglio (University of Toronto Scarborough, Ontario, Canada) examined this question in the context of gift-giving. They found that when gift givers buy also for themselves what they gift, what the authors call “companionizing”, gift recipients like the gifts more and feel closer to the gift givers. These findings suggest that similarity due to owning the same item as someone else can increase liking of the item – and suggest a simple way to make gifts that are more satisfying!

You can read more about this research here.

Who owns the monkey selfie? The case of animal copyrights

A settlement has been reached in the long-running legal battle over who owns the copyright of the famous “monkey selfie”. The pictures were taken in 2011 in Indonesia by a macaque using camera equipment belonging to the British photographer David Slater. Shortly after, a legal dispute began as Slater objected to Wikipedia Commons’ hosting the pictures. Wikipedia refused to remove the pictures claiming that the copyright belonged to the monkey. In 2015, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) joined the dispute by suing on behalf of the monkey named Naruto, based on the argument that the monkey should be assigned the copyright. Finally, the photographer whose camera was used for the selfie agreed to donate 25% of any future revenue from the pictures to charities dedicated to protecting the monkeys’ natural habitat. Definitely a thought-provoking case raising unique issues about expanding legal rights to non-human animals.

Escaping the bonds of ownership with just a camera click

Parting with our possessions can be tough, especially when it comes to objects we are emotionally attached to. This is unfortunate not only because this would free us some space in our wardrobes and storage rooms, but most importantly because nonprofit organizations almost exclusively rely on donations, which means on consumers’ willingness to give away used goods. A new study by Karen Page Winterich (Pennsylvania State University, USA), Rebecca Walker Reczek (Ohio State University, USA) and Julie R. Irwin (University of Texas at Austin, USA) provides an imaginative solution to this problem. Taking a picture of a cherished possession increases donations because it helps consumers deal with the identity loss associated with giving away sentimental goods. The authors suggest that pictures facilitate decisions to donate because they help keep the memory and thus the emotional value of the object, even in the absence of the object itself. Taking a picture could then liberate us from being possessed by our possessions and do good to others at the same time.

You can read more about this research here.

Just owned – already ‘mine’?

Have you ever wondered how much time is required before we see owned objects as reflections of ourselves? It is known from prior research using various explicit measures such as favourability ratings that people tend to associate owned objects with the self. What is less known though is how long it takes for associations between owned objects and the self to emerge. A new study by A. Nicole LeBarr and Judith M. Shedden (McMaster University, Canada) distinguished between newly-owned and already-owned objects in order to provide an answer to this question with the help of implicit measures. According to the results of the study, people were fast at associating owned objects with themselves even if they had owned them just for a few minutes. Apparently, the time between owning a new object and viewing it as a reflection of ourselves might be much shorter than previously thought.

You can read more about this research here.