Back Off, That’s Mine! How and When Consumers Express Their Feelings of Ownership with Territorial Responses.


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:


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

Editor’s note: