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)