The concept of psychological ownership (PO) as we know and understand today has originated from the field of organizational behavior and psychology. More precisely, Pierce, Kostova & Dirks (2001, 2003) were the first ones to coin the term and establish a theory of PO in organizations. Defined as “the state in which individuals feel as though the target of ownership (material or immaterial in nature) or a piece of it is “theirs”, they were able to show that PO develops through three distinct routes: control over, self-investment in, and intimate knowledge of the target of ownership (Pierce et al. 2003). In addition to these three routes, many scholars have argued that personality and disposition may also matter for the emergence of PO, yet this has never been properly tested.

In his PhD thesis, our current guest author Bobby Bullock, has explored this gap in the literature and has taken a closer look at the relationship between personality, job autonomy and psychological ownership. Moreover, he has looked at how the well-established routes through which PO is said to emerge come into play in the context of organizational employment.

But read for yourself what Bobby Bullock has to say:

Psychological ownership has come to light as an important state with strong implications on employee attitudes and behaviors.  However, relatively little attention has been paid towards the process by which employees come to develop feelings of psychological ownership towards their work, particularly regarding the role played by individual traits in this process.  Ownership theorists claim that personality and disposition should matter (Mayhew, Ashkanasy, Bramble, & Gardner, 2007; Pierce & Jussila, 2011), yet these claims remain largely untested.

The purpose of the current investigation is to address these gaps by exploring how employee disposition and job design contribute to the development of job-based psychological ownership.  Employing a cross-sectional approach, data were collected using an online survey where participants were asked to complete measures of trait positive affectivity (PA), job characteristics, work experiences, and job-based psychological ownership.  Because the study focused on job-related phenomena, participants were required to work full-time in a location other than their home to be considered for this study.  The final 426 participants (60.4% male, 39.6% female) had an average tenure of 5.04 years (SD = 5.03) and represented a wide range of industries and job levels (23.7% entry-level, 31.0% individual contributor, 17.8% supervisory, 10.8% mid-level manager, 2.8% senior manager, 13.8% technical or professional).  Hypotheses were tested using bootstrapped regression analyses and structural equation modeling.

Results indicated that job autonomy has a positive effect on job-based psychological ownership (B = 0.501, CI 0.415 to 0.594) through three mediated paths:  investment of ideas, effort, and self into one’s work (B = 0.252, CI 0.178 to 0.349), experienced control and influence over one’s work (B = 0.214, CI 0.137 to 0.293), and intimate knowledge and understanding of one’s job (B = 0.036, CI 0.003 to 0.082).  Employee PA significantly moderated the mediated path from autonomy to ownership through experienced control (Index of ModMed = 0.017, CI 0.000 to 0.045), such that control mattered more for high-PA employees.  Exploratory analyses suggest that PA may play a dual role – as a moderator of autonomy’s effects on control (B = 0.052, CI 0.009 to 0.100), and as an indirect effect on ownership itself.  For example, high-PA employees reported greater investment of self in their work, which in turn predicted job-based psychological ownership (B = 0.255, CI 0.177 to 0.361).

Ultimately, job autonomy stood out as having a particularly strong and consistent positive effect on job-based psychological ownership.  Results suggest that all employees, from the most enthusiastic to the most apathetic can experience this positive psychological state.  That is, as long as they are afforded a high level of autonomy in deciding how to plan and carry out their work.

If you are interested in reading the full paper including more detailed results, please click here.

About Bobby:

Dr. Robert Bullock is a management consultant with a background in industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology. Since 2010 he has been a staff consultant at Scontrino–Powell, Inc., a Seattle-based I-O consulting firm. As a consultant Robert specializes in qualitative and quantitative assessment (i.e., employee surveys, leadership evaluations, developmental needs assessments, organizational assessments, validation studies), learning and development (i.e., training workshops, on-the-job learning, leadership coaching, training evaluation), and continuous improvement (i.e., Lean workshops, continuous process improvement, culture change). He has provided those services to dozens of clients across a diverse range of sectors and industries, including Fortune 500 companies, state agencies, and the high-tech, education, health care, and non-profit sectors. As a scientist Robert has published and presented research on the psychology of ownership, organizational citizenship behaviors, and job design. He enjoys writing and has had articles published in several outlets including Forbes, Bloomberg, Profiles International, and more.

For more about Bobby, please click here.

Editor’s note: All references can be found in the whitepaper, which you can download here.

The Voice of Practice: How Technology is Challenging the Conventional Wisdom of Ownership


So here it comes, the first The Voice of Practice contribution. What follows is a guest commentary by tech entrepreneur Erik Chan. Erik is the co-founder of RocketClub (, an online platform that empowers people to earn shares of new business ideas by promoting and adopting them from the start. In his commentary he talks about how technology has changed the way ownership is viewed and what this means for the tech industry. Before we let Erik speak, however, let us from The Science of Ownership give you a small scientific bracket to the topic:

Sophisticated online social technologies have substantially altered the way consumers and companies interact and create value (Bernoff & Li 2008; Prahalad & Ramaswamy 2004). Traditionally, the former were simply listening to what the latter had to say and offer. Now, consumers are invited to actively participate in a variety of business-related decisions on social media and the likes (Berthon et al. 2008, Hautz et al. 2014). This power shift from the firm to the consumer has paved the way for novel concepts and business models like crowdfunding (Ordanini et al. 2011, Thürridl & Kamleitner 2016).

It has changed how new ideas, products and even firms are created. This, in turn, is challenging our conventional understanding of ownership – the line between what (is perceived to) belongs to the company and what to the consumers is becoming increasingly blurred. From literature we know that there are three major routes to ownership: control, intimate knowledge, and investment of the self (Pierce et al. 2001, 2003). When individuals co-create with companies or contribute their personal resources, all three routes may actually be activated. Consumers are able to a) control the outcome of the final product, service, or venture, b) acquire knowledge over time, and c) invest their own resources, ideas, values and identity into the process. In turn, they may start to feel that the respective product, idea, or venture is also “theirs”.

So much for the theory, let’s hear what Erik has to say about it:

In the technology startup industry, the idea of ownership holds much significance. We have seen controversies over who owned the idea behind successful companies of today; who owned the trademarks, who owned the code, and of course, who owned the equity. Each and every input in a company can have contributed to its success. While many controversies focus on the legal (and financial) components of successful companies, there is also a factor of pride. For cofounders, early employees, investors, it’s the opportunity to proclaim “I did this. I saw the potential in it. I made it happen. I was part of it.” Often, founders end up suing the company they founded for more than a share in the financial rewards, it’s also because they want to be recognized as an ‘owner’ or ‘contributor’.  

Recently, we have seen a lot of emphasis on a startup company’s initial users or customers. Ycombinator, the prominent startup accelerator who incubated successful companies including Reddit, Airbnb, and Dropbox, evangelizes the idea of acquiring 100 customers who love what your company offers than 10,000 who just care (see The idea is to acquire 100 customers who love your product so much they are willing to use it even when no one else is using it, bare through multiple product iterations, and deal with product bugs because they see and believe in the potential. These early customers believe that one day, just like the founder, they will be able to say “I was part of it.” Not surprisingly, the involvement of these customers also make them feel as if they ‘own’ the idea as well.

Although largely unscientific, tech startups do many things to try increase their users’ feeling of ownership’. Traditionally, these include awarding users with digital points and badges, offering physical articles like t-shirts and stickers, early access to new features, throwing events, and other exclusive priorities. Success examples include early Reddit users receiving t-shirts and handwritten christmas cards, the first AirBnb hosts welcoming the founders to sleep at their apartments, Facebook users staking their personal profile URLs and many more. 

Due to high startup company valuations today (cash rich startups offering an assortment of perks and freebies to their customers), many companies starting out face the challenge of whether a t-shirt is enough for its early users to feel a sense of ownership. Having struggled with rewarding early adopters for their involvement at my previous companies, I decided to build a platform called RocketClub to help companies distribute a real stake in the company to these early customers and supporters. The idea is that it is only a matter of time until early customers, critical to a company’s success, will transition from ‘psychological owners’ to also become real, legal owners. Consequently, we learned through numerous discussions with both company founders and our community of users that the feeling of ownership in a startup is not determined solely by equity ownership. And since, RocketClub has expanded to offering other means of facilitating this ownership through examples such as access to the founders, a say in the development of the product and features, as well as access to ongoing developments at the company, and many others.

Given the dizzying array of products new and old in the market today, entrepreneurs and managers are turning to incentivizing early users and customers to become part of the process/experience. The majority of startup companies fail today because they lack adoption from early stakeholder customers. Imparting ownership onto your early customers is one of few ways to help companies build a bridge between them. No company succeeds without a following behind it and early adoption goes hand in hand with imparting the psychological feeling of ownership.

What is your take? Do you agree with Erik or do you have contrary beliefs? Please use the comment section to share your thoughts with us and our readers.

About Erik:

A serial entrepreneur and technologist, Erik Chan is founder CEO of RocketClub. Previously, he cofounded MicroPay Technology, a game payments company, and social and online game companies 28wins and Bottomless Pit Games. Prior to Erik becoming an entrepreneur, he spent time at Activision Blizzard and Midway Games first as a system engineer and then as a producer. 

Erik holds a MSc in Management from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a MBA from Tsinghua University, and a BSc in Biomedical engineering with computer science from Johns Hopkins University. Erik Chan also spent time doing research at the Center of Bits and Atoms and the Software Agents group at the MIT Media lab.

Editor’s note:

  • For references to the articles mentioned in this post, please visit our Links & Resources Section

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:

Keeping up with the Joneses: Thoughts About Income Inequality, Status Competition and Psychological Ownership

Like many of the members of this blog, I am interested in theories that attempt to capture the cognitive and affective components of psychological ownership. I believe that an important avenue for future research is investigation of the role of our possessions in the dynamically evolving socio-economic context. I would therefore like to use this opportunity to highlight a potentially interesting new angle in studying the role our belongings play in our lives. A growing body of empirical evidence shows that there is a strong negative relationship between income inequality and various indices of societal well-being. Income inequality is seen in distributions of income if a large proportion of income is received by a small percentage of the population, leading in turn to even greater wealth inequalities. For example, in a highly unequal country such as USA, the wealthiest 1% possess approximately 40% of all the wealth. Contrary to the predictions of economists, the money does not flow from the richest to the poorest, and income inequality worsens with time. Why is this an important issue? A great deal of evidence now shows that when large gaps in income and wealth exist between the richest and the poorest, society suffers from a range of socio-economic maladies. Income inequality is positively associated with the number of teenage pregnancies, homicides, imprisonment rates and obesity. At the same time, it is negatively correlated with social mobility and general level of trust in a society. For a great review I would recommend an excellent book by Wilkinson and Pickett (2009 – reference at the bottom).

In my research, I have been particularly interested in the psychological mechanisms that may explain the impact of inequality. One account is based on status-seeking tendencies. Some theories, such as the social rank hypothesis (Brown, G. D. A., Boyce, C. J., & Wood, 2014; Walasek & Brown, 2015), argue that when income distribution is more unequal, income becomes a better signal of our social status. What follows is that inequality will promote positional consumption, whereby people spend more time and effort to seek high-status goods. In order to “keep up with the Joneses” people become more materialistic, surrounding themselves with fancy cars (Bricker et al., 2014), bigger houses (Cynamon & Fazzari, 2013), luxurious brands (Chao & Schor, 1996). In fact, evidence from economics shows that in order to afford these goods, people work longer hours (Bowles & Park, 2005). Nonetheless, they are still more likely to take on debt (Perugini, Jens, & Collie, 2015) or declare bankruptcy (Alvarez-Cuadrado & Attar, 2012). According to the social rank hypothesis, focus on status consumption takes away from other important aspects of life, such as efforts to promote a healthy social relationships or looking after one’s own health. In one of our recent studies, together with Gordon Brown (2015), we have shown that when income inequality is high, people search Google for luxury brands and products, such as Prada, Gucci, Chanel, fur vests, jewellery etc. Thus, when distribution of income in a society is unequal, people become more interested in status competition, which is reflected in their interest in positional goods.

How this is all related to psychological ownership? As income inequality becomes recognized as a serious challenge to the well-being in our society, the role our possessions play in our lives may be changing. Many theories of psychological ownership maintain that belongings play an important role for our self-identity, satisfying many critical psychological needs (Pierce & Jussila, 2011). What happens when the utility of our belongings comes from the role they play in status competition? If we spend our money to show off our new watch or fur coat, are we unavoidably less attached to these goods? Or, perhaps, do we develop feelings of ownership towards objects while they allow us to signal our status, with these feelings dissipating when we realize that the good is owned by everyone else? Since these goods are quickly dispensable, being replaced by newer and swankier models and brands, it seems that there is little space for psychological ownership to develop. I should note that this issue is not just related to materialistic consumption but to positional consumption. For the former, owning material goods presents value in itself. For the latter, utility from owning a good comes from the fact that few others own such possession.

These and many other questions make me wonder about the ever-changing meaning of ownership in our society. It reminds me of an excellent talk by Russell Belk at the Vienna Ownership Workshop, who presented compelling evidence that the sense of owning changes (if not depreciates) with the growing popularity of shared goods and services (Belk, 2010). I think that more work needs to be done in order to explore how the concept of psychological ownership changes along with the values in a society that are determined by the socio-economic circumstances.

Perhaps this research has been already done and I am just not aware of it. Just let me know if this is the case.

Editor’s note:

That’s MY Beer: Locale, Ownership and a Little Story about the German Beer Market

Picture PO_Blog

Location, location, and location. That’s the mantra of marketers all across the world. However, we might not always appreciate the importance of location for business. In particular, we often ignore the social and psychological aspects of locality. Yet, locality is about much more than just geographic distance. Locale refers to social dimensions such as the role of space in our everyday activities. It suggests that the closer something is to our everyday activities, the more likely it is that we will form a connection to that something. The idea of a sense of place on the other hand suggests that we experience some things as psychologically closer to us than others. That is, these things have more emotional value to us. Importantly, both locale and the sense of place are key to understanding how consumers come to pay attention to products, services and brands.

A recent intellectual discovery is that locale and a sense place are also important for feelings of ownership a consumer may develop for different products and services. By feelings of ownership we mean the psychological state in which an individual feels a material or immaterial target is “mine” and part of “me.” The connection of proximity and “mine” may be that things located on and “growing from” a territory we know and understand both in terms of geography and culture may more easily fall with the realm of our psychological ownership.

Take for example the German beer market, which is well known to rely on the concept of regionalization as evidenced in the popularity of local craft breweries. When the production of beer is located in the consumer’s own territory, there is more readily the possibility that the consumer will experience a closer connection to the products of that brewery. This is even truer for beer brands that emphasize their regional character and corresponding values. Consider, for example, the meanings the inhabitants of picturesque Potsdam associate with Potsdamer Stange – a regional specialty of the area. The producing company strongly emphasizes the 200 year history of this light wheat malt that has a very special balanced taste to it, as evidenced in a recent field study by the authors. It is possible that for many Postdamer the Stange is familiar and provides a sense of home – it is “their” beer. In may well be that as part of the equation these people experience their impact and effort in their neighborhood as extending to the local brewery through various community processes – thereby contributing to the sense of ownership for the local beer.

This trend of regionalization can in fact be seen on other markets. Even globally operating brands capitalize on these effects by offering the sense of home in an increasingly globalized world. For example, why is it that US consumers tend to rather often select home brands when traveling abroad? We believe that selecting a brand they feel is “theirs” provides them with a sense of home and security. In other words, such brands serve as a psychological risk management strategy in the global context. There are spaces to dock your self to every once and while when exploring the unknown territories.

– Iiro Jussila (Lappeenranta University of Technology, Finland) and Marko Sarstedt (Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg, Germany)