The tragedy of the commons is a well-known problem we face: How can consumers be encouraged to take better care of public goods? In their recent research, Joann Peck (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Colleen P. Kirk (New York Institute of Technology), Andrea W. Luangrath (University of Iowa), and Suzanne B. Shu (Cornell University) use marketing knowledge to address issues of sustainability for public resources. The authors propose that psychological ownership over a public good, i.e. people feel as if the property is one’s own, increases the propensity for stewardship behaviors. Their research shows that individual-level behavioral intervention of increasing psychological ownership is able to affect nonowners’ behavior toward resources. These findings offer new insights into how social welfare can be improved and can benefit marketers of public good.
Research on the consequences of psychological ownership has mostly focused on its effects on the relationship with a specific target of ownership. But could it be that psychological ownership also has carry-over effects on domains unrelated to the specific target of ownership? A new research by Ata Jami (Northwestern University), Maryam Kouchaki (Northwestern University), and Francesca Gino (Harvard University) examines this question. Specifically, the authors propose that psychological ownership increases prosocial behavior behavior because it boosts people’s self-esteem and therefore makes them more willing to help out. They also identify materialism and mine-me sensitivity as moderators of this effect. This research suggests that psychological ownership besides having profound implications on our relationships with possessions can also affect behavior in unrelated domains, such as altruistic behavior.
A recent research reveals a novel antecedent of psychological ownership: smell. Ruta Ruzeviciute (University of Amsterdam), Bernadette Kamleitner (WU Vienna University of Economics and Business) and Dipayan Biswas (University of South Florida) examined the effect of scented advertising on product appeal. They found that scented as opposed to non-scented advertising increases product appeal. Interestingly, the authors found that the mechanism accounting for this effect is a sense of proximity induced by scent, which in turn increases psychological ownership. In other words, when people smell a scented (vs. non-scented) ad, they like the advertised product more because they experience it as being closer to them and more ‘theirs’. These findings add to the literature on proximity as an antecedent of psychological ownership implying that it is not only through direct contact and touch that people can experience psychological ownership, as prior research has shown; smell can also induce psychological ownership through its ability to represent the essence of an object that is not physically present.
Can experiencing positive affect during consumption make consumers feel that a brand is ‘theirs’? A recently published paper by Carina Thürridl (University of Amsterdam), Bernadette Kamleitner (WU Vienna), Ruta Ruzeviciute (University of Amsterdam), Sophie Süssenbach (WU Vienna), and Stephan Dickert (Queen Mary University London) answers that yes, it can! Among the authors of this paper, the readers of this blog can recognize many researchers who have been associated for long with the current blog as contributors. This team of researchers examined the role that positive affect may play in the development of psychological ownership. Across various studies with various product categories and real as well as fictitious brands, they found that experiencing positive affect during consumption induces stronger feelings of psychological ownership for a brand. They also found that this effect is stronger when a brand has an affective positioning in the first place. You can learn more about this research by having a look at the cartoon-style summary below. And if this triggers your curiosity further, you can read the complete article here. Don’t forget: for a maximum sense of psychological ownership, make sure you read it when being in a good mood!
A survey of pet owners found that they spent an average of US$2,883 in 2016 on 22 “common expenses” for their dogs, compared with $1,926 for cats, based on an analysis of the data collected for the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey. The extra money went primarily toward vet visits and kennel boarding, but dog owners also spent more on treats, grooming and toys.
And almost half of households own a dog, while just 38 percent have a cat. Generational trends suggest this divergence is likely to grow, as millennials are more likely to adopt a canine, while baby boomers tend to be cat lovers.
One reason suggested was that dog owners had stronger bonds to their pets, which prompted them to spend more on things like veterinary care.
My research uncovered a key factor indicating why dog owners feel more attached to their pets: Dogs are famously more compliant than cats. When owners feel in control of their pets, strong feelings of psychological ownership and emotional attachment develop. And pet owners want to be masters – not servants.
Like other marketing researchers, my work uses “willingness to pay” as an indicator of the economic, rather than emotional, value owners place on their pets. It shows – and compares – how much pet owners would pay to save their animal’s life.
Who’s in control?
So I carried out three online experiments to explore the role of psychological ownership in these valuations.
In the first experiment, I asked dog or cat owners to write about their pet’s behavior so I could measure their feelings of control and psychological ownership. Participants then imagined their pet became ill and indicated the most they would be willing to pay for a life-saving surgery.
Dog owners, on average, said they would pay $10,689 to save the life of their pet, whereas cat owners offered less than half that. At the same time, dog owners tended to perceive more control and psychological ownership over their pets, suggesting this might be the reason for the difference in spending.
Of course, correlation is not causation. So in a second experiment, I asked participants how much they would be willing to pay to save their animal’s life after I had disturbed their sense of ownership. I did this by asking participants to imagine their pet’s behavior was a result of training it received from a previous owner.
As expected, disrupting their feelings of ownership eliminated the difference in valuation between dogs and cats.
Since pet owners like to control their animals, and since cats are less controllable than dogs, the third experiment went straight to the point: Does the owner value the dog or cat for its own sake or for its compliant behavior?
To find out, I again asked survey respondents to describe how much they’d be willing to pay to save their pet’s life, but this time I randomly assigned one of four scenarios: Participants were told they either own a dog, a cat, a dog that behaves like a cat, or a cat that behaves like a dog.
Participants reported they would pay $4,270 to save the life of their dog, but only $2,462 for their cat. However, this pattern was reversed when the pet’s behavior changed, with dog-behaving cats valued at $3,636, but cat-behaving dogs only $2,372.
These results clearly show that the animal’s behavior is what makes people willing to pay.
Master or servant
These findings establish that psychological ownership is a driving factor in dog owners’ higher valuations.
People feel ownership because they perceive that they can control their pets’ behavior. This research even distinguishes the type of control that probably most stimulates ownership feelings: It’s not just physical control, such as being able to pick up an animal or drag it by a leash. Rather, it’s the animal’s voluntary compliance with its owner’s wishes.
No matter how cute and cuddly your kitties may be, they can’t compete with dogs when it comes to giving pet owners the sense of mastery they seek.
This article has been updated to correct how much pet owners say they spend on their cats and explain the data more completely.
Have you ever found a bar or a café on your own, without any prior information or recommendations from others? If yes, have you ever wondered what consequences the sense that this venue is ‘your’ discovery might have on your subsequent relationship with the venue? A new research by two contributors of this blog, Michail Kokkoris and Bernadette Kamleitner (WU Vienna University of Economics and Business), together with Erik Hoelzl (University of Cologne), examines this question and provides novel insights into service marketing. A series of studies including various methodologies (field study, representative survey, online and lab experiments) and various service domains (cafés, bars, restaurants) provides evidence that the way a venue is first found has an impact on customers’ attitudes and behaviors towards this venue. Specifically, when customers have the sense that they discovered a venue on their own (rather than assisted by some information or others’ recommendations), they report stronger bonds with the venue in terms of self-connection, emotional attachment, and psychological ownership. In turn, stronger customer bonds translate into higher customer loyalty. For example, a survey with a presentative sample of Viennese coffee-goers showed that customers who have discovered a venue on their own spend more money in the specific venue compared to other venues, plan to come back more often and are willing to pay more even in the case of price increases. However, this seems to hold only for discoveries with a positive outcome, that is, when the overall experience with the venue is outstanding in the first place. In short, the sense of own discovery may have some previously unacknowledged benefits for businesses – an idea that is perhaps ‘heretical’ in the era of social media, where most businesses strive for attention and visibility. Letting customers discover venues on their own and have this ‘eureka’ experience can have beneficial managerial implications. Next time you accidentally stumble on a bar that no one has talked to you about, be prepared: A long-lasting, intimate relationship between you and the bar might be just beginning!
A recent study shows the relevance of psychological ownership theory in the domain of music streaming. Music streaming services have become the most popular way of consuming music nowadays. What characterizes the use of these services is a lack of legal ownership of the music that consumers listen to. But can consumers nevertheless develop feelings of psychological ownership? And what effects can that practically have? Sebastian Danckwerts and Peter Kenning (Heinrich‐Heine‐Universität, Düsseldorf, Germany) conducted a study to address these questions. The results show that consumers can indeed develop feelings of psychological ownership both of the service and the music featured. More importantly, this research also shows that music‐based psychological ownership is a predictor of users’ intention to switch from free to premium. Therefore, helping consumers develop a sense of psychological ownership may be profitable for providers of music streaming services.
Giving names to the products we love is a common thing practiced in many parts of the world. From things that we rely on on a daily basis – like bicycles and cars – to goods that make our homes a bit homier – like soft toys or plants – an abundance of items lend themselves to individualization by their owner.
Recently, companies like Toyota have started to leverage consumers’ infatuation with the name game by activley encouraging them to name their cars as part of a marketing campaign. And while the Swedish furniture giant IKEA is keeping the aspect of consumer individualization to product assembly, it has at least itself been assigning fancy names to their products for years. Who is not familiar with the Pax’s and Billy’s of this world?
But does naming products actually make a difference when it comes to consumer responses? And if so, why? In a recently published paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the authors Jennifer L. Stoner (University of North Dakota), Barbara Loken (University of Minnesota) and Ashley Stadler Blank (University of St. Thomas) explore this question. Across three experiments, they show that when consumers name their products, their evaluations of those products increase. Additionally, they find that this increase in product evaluation stems from a boost in psychological ownership consumers experience from naming. This boost in psychological ownership, is, in turn, driven by name fit and creativity – two aspects that are highly subjective and thus only of real magnitude when names are self-chosen as opposed to assigned.
Overall, their very interesting results open up a new substantive line of inquiry into the effects of naming products. More details about the research can be found by clicking [HERE].
Stoner, J. L., Loken, B. and Stadler Blank, A. (2018), The Name Game: How Naming Products Increases Psychological Ownership and Subsequent Consumer Evaluations. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 28: 130-137.
Consumers acquire material possessions as tangible expressions of their identity, extend themselves through products, and use material possessions as symbolic markers of group membership. Given the profound power of material possessions and individuals’ attachment to them, significant research has been conducted in an effort to understand the positive and negative consequences of such possession attachment for consumers. However, more recently, there has been a call for reconceptualizing consumerism for digital markets. Today, digital services such as Spotify, Tidal, or Apple Music for music streaming, Tinder, Grindr, or eHarmony for online dating solutions, and PayPal, Alipay, or WeChat Pay for online payment offerings, extensively permeate consumers’ lives. Digital services are ubiquitous, especially in digitized economies and often lead to time-consuming activities and habits, which can dramatically affect individuals’ well-being, either positively or negatively. Importantly, digital service consumption compared to other services often comes with very low entry barriers. For example, obtaining a membership at a gym demands that customers make an effort (i.e., making an appointment, driving to the location, talking to sales staff) even before the consumption process has begun. The “let’s give it a try” barrier is much higher in terms of personal resource investment than for digital service consumption. Simply downloading a new app, trying out a streaming service, or registering on a social media platform takes only seconds and requires little resource investment. Therefore, we wanted to explore when and how consumers, if at all, form attachments to digital services technologies and examine the extent to which and why people immediately stick to a digital service after using it for the first time (i.e., they become instantaneously attached).
One of the most important and robust empirical findings noted in the context of ownership research is the endowment effect. In the series of previous experiments on the endowment effect, people assigned approximately twice the value to commonly desired material items such as pens or mugs when they were endowed with the item and asked to state prices to sell the item compared with people who were asked to make offers to buy these items. A novel and important contribution of our research is to examine the endowment effect’s instantaneous nature of the reference point shift and consequent value change for digital service technologies.
As a preliminary test of our theoretical perspective, we conducted a field study to examine the real-world relevance of the endowment effect for digital services. We followed the recommended standard procedures employed in most previous studies. According to the established experimental standard approach of the endowment effect, the participants are randomly designated owners (nonowners) of a target object (e.g., pens, mugs). They are then told that they are (not) allowed to keep the object. Owners (vs. nonowners) are asked about the amount of money for which they would be willing to sell (buy) the object, indicating their willingness to accept, “WTA” (willingness to pay for the object, “WTP”). The endowment effect is quantified by the resulting WTA‒WTP disparity (WTA>WTP). Accordingly, and simply put, in the prestudy we expected that actual users of a digital service technology will state higher prices to give up using the service (WTAU–S) than nonusers will be willing to pay (WTPNU–B) to start using it (WTAU–S > WTPNU–B). The study followed a quasi-experimental design and included one manipulated between-subjects factor (group: nonuser-seller, user-buyer) and one measured variable (price). The real-world digital service referred to is a complimentary mobile app offered at some universities. It provides students with information about canteen menus, available jobs, events, and accommodation offers, all customized to their particular university. An online survey was conducted at a university that provides the app to its students. Those participants who stated they did not know the app or did not currently use it were automatically assigned to the nonuser-buyer group. The participants who stated they currently used it were assigned to the user-seller group. We found that user-sellers stated significantly higher prices than nonuser-buyers. As such, the prestudy confirmed the endowment effect for digital services as it replicated prior results in the context of material products in the context of digital service technologies.
However, more recently the endowment effect’s main explanatory accounts (i.e. the underlying psychological processes that drive the effect) have been subject to academic debate. On the one hand, since the initial studies on the endowment effect, the effect has long been ascribed to loss aversion, i.e. fact that losses loom larger than gains. That is, owners state higher prices to sell an object than buyers are willing to pay for it because, for owners, giving away the object is a loss. This loss for the owners is more severe than the gain buyers derive from obtaining the object. Therefore, higher price evaluations for the object by owners are mainly driven by a perceived parting disutility. The main reason for this is that the accumulation of possessions provides existential security for individuals. It is noteworthy that this human behavior with its evolutionary heritage may even be independent of the object-related evaluation. On the other hand, a growing stream of research directly challenges the “loss aversion account” and instead highlights the “ownership account” to explain the endowment effect. According to the “ownership account”, the higher valuation of the target object relates to a special bond with the object, which in turn induces ownership utility. This is ascribed to a resulting possession‒self link, as the object is incorporated into the extended self, becoming a self-referential part of the person’s identity. Referring to the “ownership account”, the reluctance of giving up an object is related to a special meaning of the object for the owner.
In order to explain how consumers become instantaneously attached to digital service technologies, we conducted an online experiment where we employed an extended experimental design for separately testing the ownership and loss aversion account and putting both accounts into direct competition. Moreover, we expected that the differences in prevailing service characteristics (hedonic vs. utilitarian) are likely to influence the endowment effect for digital services because the instantaneous formation of proprietary feelings for external objects is driven by people’s foresight or expectations of the object’s future use. That is, people instantaneously develop proprietary feelings for an object after evaluating their future usage intentions. Specifically, people retain psychological possessions because of two underlying saving patterns: instrumental saving and sentimental saving. Instrumental saving refers to the perceived future need for an object. The object fulfills the purpose of solving a task, and the person acknowledges the possibility of being able to use the object in the future. Simply put, people hold onto such an object simply because they might need it in the future, even if they currently have no immediate need for using it (e.g., insurance policy, antivirus software). In contrast, sentimental saving occurs when an individual consciously acknowledges that the object is relevant to maintain the individual self-concept. Sentimental saving is determined by the person’s self-related feelings for the object (e.g., family video, lifestyle app).
Considering the different explanations of the endowment effect, we expected the endowment effect to hold for both hedonic and utilitarian digital services. However, we argue that the difference in the occurrence of the endowment effect for both types of digital services lies in the psychological processes driving the effect.
People should be more likely to hold onto utilitarian digital services based on instrumental saving because the usage of utilitarian services does not tie-in with consumers’ identities but rather their practicability triggers future usage considerations (i.e., “I might need it in the future”). This is related to the endowment effect because loss aversion occurs due to a reluctance to give away external objects even when such objects currently have no special meaning for the owner. In contrast, a hedonic digital service should serve as an extension of the person’s self and is thus a reminder of a relevant part of the self-concept. Hence, people should be likely to hold onto hedonic digital services based on sentimental saving because the usage of it ties in with consumers’ identities. This conscious acknowledgment of an object’s self-related importance relates the endowment effect’s “ownership account” because the reluctance to switch from a hedonic service should occur due to the self-related importance of the service for the user.
Taken together, in the experimental study we found that psychological processes underlying the endowment effect differ between utilitarian and hedonic digital services. Indeed, proprietary feelings towards utilitarian digital services occurred due to loss aversion, whereas proprietary feelings towards hedonic digital services reflect the consumer’s conscious self-relatedness to the digital service. Individuals consciously or unconsciously hold onto digital utilitarian services simply because they are reluctant to feel a loss when with regard to giving them up. In turn, digital hedonic services hold a special self-referred meaning to individuals.
Given the ongoing progress in artificial intelligence and the potential for virtual reality to act as the next “super drug”, further research on human attachment to digital service offerings is rich in potential. We invite additional research on what we believe is a promising and important field of work not only for business to better maneuver an environment with an increased offering of digital services but also to help humankind in the pursuit of self-understanding and autonomy.
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.