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

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

 

What Business Leaders can learn from the Psychology of Ownership

A GUEST COMMENTARY BY FABIAN BERNHARD, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF MANAGEMENT AT EDHEC BUSINESS SCHOOL IN FRANCE

TSOO: You have been doing research  in the field of ownership, could you please tell us the main insights?

Our constitution* states that „Property entails obligations.” Accordingly, owners of an object have certain rights and duties how to act with their possessions. Most people are very much familiar with this legal aspect of ownership. Less known, however, are the psychological aspects of the feeling of ownership. Research during the past decade has started looking into this phenomenon referred to as “psychological ownership”.

Psychological ownership influences human thinking and acting. And indeed latest research in the field of neuroscience confirms what philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and business scholars have suspected and theorized for a long time. Ownership about material and immaterial objects has a strong motivational force on the way we act and our attitude towards things. Once we call an object “ours” and feel like having the right to possess it we tend to taking better care of it. We are motivated to closely paying attention to the owned object, supporting it, improving it, and also have difficulties relinquishing it.

While the psychological effects of ownership are present in all aspects of our daily lives, it is particularly the business world that has become interested in using psychological ownership as a motivational tool managing their workforce. The idea is to make employees feel and act like owners. When they feel like the organization is ‘theirs’ they potentially put more effort into it. However, rather than giving out shares and making employees factual and “legal” owners, it has been shown that the mere ownership feeling can increase individual commitment and performance.

Given these desirable outcomes the question arises how to actively influence employees’ psychological ownership. Together with a psychologist we looked deeper into this phenomenon. In a quantitative study of 50 companies we examined the ownership feelings of over 200 employees. We found that psychological ownership can depend on the business owners’ leadership style. Certain business owners in our study were more transformational in their leadership to their employees than others. They acted as role-models, provided their workforce a general vision but left enough autonomy for their followers to find their own ways to fulfill goals. Employees under such leadership were more likely to develop ownership feelings. On the other side, results showed that transactional leaders, meaning those that put emphasis on extrinsic rewards and control created them to a lesser degree. While transactional leaders were still effective, a third group of leaders, those who followed a “laissez-faire” approach, meaning not giving enough guidance to employees, blocked the emergence of ownership feelings.

In line with these findings, the study also showed that those employees with higher degrees of psychological ownership demonstrated more positive attitudes and behaviors. For example, the psychological owners displayed higher levels of performance and were more willing to go the extra mile. They helped their colleagues more often, were more committed, and more satisfied in their jobs. As a consequence psychological ownership also created more loyalty towards the company and among the workforce.

In a second series of more recent studies with colleagues from the universities of Mannheim and Rostock, we investigated in more depth how some leaders exert their influence on psychological ownership. For example, we examined the effects of emotional exhaustion of service workers and customer appreciation of their work. Similarly, we could show a relationship of certain leadership styles on employee welfare and an organizational climate of initiative taking.

Overall, the studies illustrated the potential power of ownership feelings in organizational settings and the difference well-suited leadership can make. Psychological ownership also plays a particularly relevant role in closely-held companies in several ways. First, it has been argued that founders of businesses work harder and longer hours than most employees. This may have to do with ownership feelings. When we work for our “own” ideas or projects our motivation is usually highest. We regularly observe such effect in enthusiastic start-up entrepreneurs working long hours to make their business “fly”. So, ownership feelings may be the motivational fire in entrepreneurial business endeavors.

Second, many business founders would like to see that the entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to the business transfers to the next generation. Accordingly, they ask how to convey ownership feelings to their future successors. In a research project with American colleagues we tackled this issue and investigated several teaching approaches to stimulate emotional attachment and psychological ownership in the next generation of young family business members.

And lastly, it is also of interest for family-owned businesses to find ways to include and keep those motivated who are not part of the family, namely the nonfamily employees and external managers. Together with two colleagues from the University of St. Gallen we found that justice and fairness perceptions play an essential role for the development of ownership feelings in the nonfamily personnel. By means of creating a fair environment family-owners could create a motivated and committed team.

Prof. Dr. Fabian Bernhard is an Associate Professor of Management and a member of the Family Business Center at EDHEC Business School in France. He is also a research fellow at the University of Mannheim in Germany, where he also had studied business administration. A scholarship led him to the University of Oregon from where he graduated with an MBA. After working several years at a large, international consulting company in New York, he returned to academia in 2007. During the following years as a PhD student at the European Business School (EBS) and the WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany, he developed the ideas of his book on “Psychological Ownership in Family Businesses”. After having completed his doctoral degree in 2011, he was a research professor at INSEEC Business School in Paris and an adjunct professor at the Family Enterprise Center (FEC) at Stetson University of Florida in the US.

Fabian Bernhard’s current topics of interest revolve around the intersection of organizational behavior, organizational psychology, and family business research. In particular, Fabian is interested in the emotional dynamics in family businesses, moral emotions (such as shame and guilt), the education and preparation of next generational family business leaders, as well as all kinds of  attachment to the family business, such as psychological ownership, commitment, social identity, and their influence on the decision-making process in family businesses. If you want to know more about Fabian, feel free to visit his profile at EDHEC [CLICK HERE].

This article was originally published in transfer – Werbeforschung & Praxis, (03/ 2017) 

A Researcher’s Perspective on Ownership: Bart Claus – We are what we have. Or were we?

A GUEST COMMENTARY BY BART CLAUS, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF MARKETING AT IÉSEG SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT IN PARIS, FRANCE

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) 

Traces left by previous owners and evaluation of used goods

How do visible traces of previous owners on products in secondary markets affect buyers’ evaluations? This is an interesting question for secondary markets like eBay, where thousands of used goods are sold and products start a second life after having being disposed by their initial owners. However, as many consumers tend to customize or personalize their products, this may leave on the products visible traces of the previous owners. How does that affect potential buyers’ evaluations of these goods? Jungkeun Kim (Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand) examined this question in several studies. He found that buyers evaluate used goods with salient traces of previous owners less positively because the salience of these traces makes it harder for potential buyers to psychologically appropriate the product and develop feelings of psychological ownership. Analyses of actual transactions from eBay.com also confirmed this effect. Apparently, making used goods ours presupposes forgetting that they used to be someone else’s; and erasing previous owners’ traces – even literally, e.g. with a cleaning service, as these studies show – may help overcome these psychological barriers that may prevent us from buying used goods.

You can read more about this research here.

One for you, one for me: Giving shared gifts

We know from past research on the mere ownership effect that people tend to like their possessions merely because they own them. But do people also like their possessions more merely because others own them too? Evan Polman (University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA) and Sam J. Maglio (University of Toronto Scarborough, Ontario, Canada) examined this question in the context of gift-giving. They found that when gift givers buy also for themselves what they gift, what the authors call “companionizing”, gift recipients like the gifts more and feel closer to the gift givers. These findings suggest that similarity due to owning the same item as someone else can increase liking of the item – and suggest a simple way to make gifts that are more satisfying!

You can read more about this research here.

Escaping the bonds of ownership with just a camera click

Parting with our possessions can be tough, especially when it comes to objects we are emotionally attached to. This is unfortunate not only because this would free us some space in our wardrobes and storage rooms, but most importantly because nonprofit organizations almost exclusively rely on donations, which means on consumers’ willingness to give away used goods. A new study by Karen Page Winterich (Pennsylvania State University, USA), Rebecca Walker Reczek (Ohio State University, USA) and Julie R. Irwin (University of Texas at Austin, USA) provides an imaginative solution to this problem. Taking a picture of a cherished possession increases donations because it helps consumers deal with the identity loss associated with giving away sentimental goods. The authors suggest that pictures facilitate decisions to donate because they help keep the memory and thus the emotional value of the object, even in the absence of the object itself. Taking a picture could then liberate us from being possessed by our possessions and do good to others at the same time.

You can read more about this research here.

Just owned – already ‘mine’?

Have you ever wondered how much time is required before we see owned objects as reflections of ourselves? It is known from prior research using various explicit measures such as favourability ratings that people tend to associate owned objects with the self. What is less known though is how long it takes for associations between owned objects and the self to emerge. A new study by A. Nicole LeBarr and Judith M. Shedden (McMaster University, Canada) distinguished between newly-owned and already-owned objects in order to provide an answer to this question with the help of implicit measures. According to the results of the study, people were fast at associating owned objects with themselves even if they had owned them just for a few minutes. Apparently, the time between owning a new object and viewing it as a reflection of ourselves might be much shorter than previously thought.

You can read more about this research here.