She’s Proud of It: Psychological Ownership in a Digital World

colleeen_momMy mother is 83 years old and loves her iPhone. She prides herself on her ability to use it, explore it, and discover new apps, features and functions. Her self-confidence in uncovering new features is not particularly high, and it is easier for her to appropriate new functionality when one of her kids shows her what to do. But once she has adopted it, she makes it her own, telling anyone who will listen about her newfound feature or app. She considers herself highly innovative among the senior set, as she has friends who do not even use email, much less voice-controlled texting. When she is relaxed and has time on her hands, such as when we are out to lunch together, she is insistent that we download the latest Uber app* for her or show her a new gadget on her phone. However, when she has a deadline, as she still does these days as she is revising a paper for a journal or preparing a lecture on her latest musicology research, her beloved technology can be annoying and frustrating, and she has no interest in exploring or new appropriation.

My coauthor, Scott Swain, and I study this process of technology appropriation among consumers of all ages. How do we come to experience a sense of ownership (Pierce, Kostova, and Dirks 2003) of intangible goods such as digital content or technologies? Under what conditions does a sense of ownership emerge? What are the outcomes? And what are the individual differences among us that enhance or detract from this process?

In one of our recent articles with James Gaskin (Kirk, Swain, and Gaskin 2015), we argue a key emotion that plays a role in the emergence of psychological ownership in a digital context is pride. While pride is felt and displayed in the body as a unitary emotion, it actually has two facets which depend on how consumers attribute its source (Tracy and Robins 2007). When my mother works hard to learn a new app, as she has done in mastering the ability to “call an Uber” when she needs it, she is experiencing authentic pride, attributed to her effort. On the other hand, if she thinks about how much better she is than her senior friends at using technology, she might attribute her success at using the app to this superior ability and a touch of hubristic pride might creep into the mix. We look at this consumer technology appropriation process through the lens of customization or self-design (Franke, Schreier, and Kaiser 2010; Moreau and Herd 2010), arguing that as consumers invest themselves in learning and interacting with digital technologies, the process is a kind of experienced or unintentional self-design. This investment of self elicits authentic pride which enhances psychological ownership.

The social aspect of digital technologies also plays a key role in the emergence of psychological ownership. Pride is a self-conscious emotion which is activated more strongly in the presence of others. For example, as consumers, as we think about creating content that is seen by others, this opportunity to validate our identity in a digital realm (Karahanna, Xu, and Zhang 2015) or even co-construct an aggregate extended self with others (Belk 2013) results in feelings of pride. When we attribute this pride to our own efforts, our sense of ownership of the digital content is enhanced. At the same time, when hubristic pride is an outcome, we enhance ourselves by valuing psychologically owned content and technologies more highly and telling other people about them.

Scott and I have conducted a number of studies that examine these and other ideas experimentally. We have found that we as consumers will experience stronger feelings of ownership of interactive digital content when we are motivated to enjoy ourselves than when we are trying to accomplish a specific task. But this depends on the connectedness we feel with others who may also be occupying the same digital space. We have also found that simply perceiving the opportunity to interact with digital content may be sufficient to elicit psychological ownership, depending on how involved we are with the subject matter at hand. Interactivity becomes a way to “touch” (Peck and Shu 2009) the intangible. We are also exploring the role of both facets of pride and how focusing on self versus others may have an impact.

Psychological ownership has piqued the interest of marketing researchers recently, and for good reason (Jussila et al. 2015; Kamleitner and Feuchtl 2015). Feelings of ownership have a strong effect on important marketing outcomes, such as product demand (Fuchs, Prandelli, and Schreier 2010), economic valuation (Brasel and Gips 2014; Shu and Peck 2011), and word of mouth (Kirk, McSherry, and Swain in press). While researchers are beginning to get a handle on the emergence of psychological ownership among consumers of tangible goods, Scott and I are trying to uncover an understanding of how consumers come to experience psychological ownership in an intangible digital world. Given the accelerating role digital technologies are playing in our lives, we may all have something to be proud of.

*Uber is an American international transportation network company headquartered in San Francisco, California. It develops, markets and operates the Uber mobile app, which allows consumers to submit a trip request which is then routed to sharing economy drivers (for more information visit www.uber.com)

Editor’s note:

3 thoughts on “She’s Proud of It: Psychological Ownership in a Digital World

  1. thank you for your sharing about psychological ownership. it’s really helpfull for my recent reaserch. I just wanna ask about the literature you have, is there any topic or research that correlate psychological ownership with innovative work behavior?
    thank you

  2. thank you for your sharing about psychological ownership, it’s really help for my recent research as a collage student. Furter, i want to ask about the literature or some information, is there any research or topic that correlate psychological ownership with innovative behavior? thank you

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