BY COLLEEN P. KIRK, JOANN PECK AND SCOTT D. SWAIN
Consumers often come to feel a sense of ownership for products they do not necessarily legally own. For example, simply touching a product in a store or imagining owning a product can enhance consumers’ feelings of ownership. This sense of ownership, called psychological ownership, frequently leads to positive outcomes for marketers, such as increased word-of-mouth intentions and willingness to pay more for a product.
My research collaborators, Joann Peck, Scott Swain, and I wanted to examine an outcome from consumers’ psychological ownership that may not always be so positive: territoriality. Based on prior research, we expected that when consumers perceive someone is trying to claim psychological ownership of a product they feel ownership of themselves, there is potential for consumers to feel infringed and respond territorially. We wanted to explore how consumers perceive that others are communicating psychological ownership of a product, under what conditions they will feel infringed, and what outcomes might result.
Consumers come to feel ownership of a product in any one of three ways: either by controlling it, such as by moving it; by investing themselves in it, such as by customizing it; or by getting to know it intimately, such as growing up with it or using it in a special way. Accordingly, we believed that people might also communicate their psychological ownership to others by communicating their control, investment of self, or intimate knowledge of a product. We expected that these messages from other individuals would lead consumers to feel infringed when they felt ownership of the product themselves.
To examine this idea, we conducted five experiments, each designed to elicit or manipulate feelings of ownership in consumers and then have other people communicate, or signal, psychological ownership of the same product. In the first experiment, participants in a laboratory were told they would be dining in a restaurant by themselves. They poured themselves a cup of coffee from a bar at the side of the room, and then customized it with a wide variety of enhancements, such as various sugars, frothed milks, syrups, etc. In this way, they developed strong feelings of ownership for their coffee. They carried their customized coffee cup back to their table and were served a piece of cake. As the server then came over to each diner, she inquired “Is everything OK?” She then either moved the participant’s coffee cup for no apparent reason, or did not move it. A pretest showed that when the server moved the coffee cup for no apparent reason, participants perceived she was communicating psychological ownership of the coffee.
We found that participants whose coffee cup was moved tipped the server 25% less – a form of retaliation – and were more likely to pull the coffee cup closer to themselves and to display negative facial expressions. In a survey, these participants reported they felt that the server had infringed on their territory and that they were more likely to leave quickly and less likely to return to the restaurant.
Consumers can also become territorial over intangible products, such as an artistic design. In a second experiment, participants volunteered for a local nonprofit organization by decorating folders for children’s educational materials. They either copied a design onto the folder (low psychological ownership of the design) or created their own design on a folder (high psychological ownership of the design). Then, the nonprofit assistant either said or did not say “That looks like my design!” This statement communicated the assistant’s psychological ownership of the folder design. We found that participants who had designed their own folder and received the assistant’s ownership statement were less likely to pick up the assistant’s dropped pen and return it. In a survey, they once again reported that the assistant infringed on their territory and they perceived the assistant more negatively. They were also less likely to spread positive word-of-mouth, donate to the nonprofit, or return to volunteer again. Interestingly, they reported they would be more likely to post a selfie with their folder on social media. This is a way consumers attempt to defend against future infringements of their psychologically-owned property, by communicating their own claim to ownership.
In a third experiment, we elicited psychological ownership of a sweater in a retail store by having participants imagine touching and wearing it. Then another customer either touched the sweater, or asked permission and then touched it. Asking permission first dampened consumers’ feelings of infringement and reduced territorial responses. Some of the territorial responses elicited by the infringement included hostile expressions, picking up the sweater and holding it, putting down a separator bar, and retaliating by not telling the infringer about money they dropped.
A fourth experiment in a coffee shop showed that participants were less likely to respond territorially when the infringer had no way to know of their own feelings of ownership of a seat because they had not marked their territory with a belonging. In the final experiment, we manipulated participants’ psychological ownership of a delicious-looking pizza in an open-air market. We measured narcissism, and found that consumers higher in narcissism were more likely to believe that others are already aware of their feelings of ownership. Therefore, they were more likely than low narcissists to feel infringed and respond territorially when a stranger tried to claim ownership of the same pizza by communicating intimate knowledge about it.
With these five experiments, we show that it is important for marketers to think about situations in which consumers may be feeling a sense of ownership of a product, and how marketers’ actions and words might unknowingly elicit feelings of infringement and territorial responses. For example, a new sales clerk who displays too much pride in showing customers “his” offerings in “his” store may be inadvertently marking territory and thus putting off long-time customers who also have feelings of ownership for the store. Restaurant servers might be well-advised to acknowledge patrons’ psychological ownership with an “excuse me” before moving their dishes for no apparent reason. In addition, consumers may infringe on each other, even unintentionally. Unwanted consequences from infringement can include consumers’ leaving a store quickly, not returning to the store in the future, leaving a smaller tip, negative facial expressions and not telling the infringer about a dropped pen or money. Marketers can help by providing ways for consumers to protect their psychologically-owned items prior to purchase, such as with separator bars on conveyor belts and large shopping bags for temporarily holding items under consideration.
This research can help us not only in understanding territoriality and its implications in consumer behavior, but also to be more sensitive about when we might inadvertently be communicating feelings of ownership and eliciting territorial responses in others. Our findings about narcissism are also important. People high in narcissism are very self-centered and have a larger-than-real sense of themselves. We find that they believe other people automatically know of their feelings of ownership for an attractive product, even when there is no way they could know. As a result, they are quicker to feel infringed and respond territorially.
Territoriality is alive and well in consumer behavior and our research is a step towards understanding this common phenomenon.
This research was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research and can be accessed at: https://academic.oup.com/jcr/article-abstract/45/1/148/4617692