"Mine, Mine, Mine!": The Psychology of Property

The concept of property is easy to intuit, but difficult to articulate.

Posted Oct 18, 2016

"Mine!" is one of the first words that toddlers learn. Our society is entrenched in concepts of ownership, of possession, of what is yours and what is mine. But what does it really mean for something to be yours? 

In law, “property” is a term of art. One way to define property is as “nothing but a basis of expectation, the expectation of deriving certain advantages from a thing which we are said to possess, in consequence of the relation in which we stand towards it.” Jeremy Benthan, Theory of Legislation, 111-12 (C.K. Ogden ed. 1931) (explaining that property “is not material, it is metaphysical…a mere conception of the mind.”) But even the word “possession” is ambiguous—it is used to reference both the physical act of power or control over something, as well as the legal conclusion of lawful entitlement. 

Harold Demsetz, professor emeritus of economics at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), has prominently offered one way to understand property—that its “main allocative function” is “the internalization of beneficial and harmful effects.” Harold Demsetz, Toward a Theory of Property Rights, in Perspectives on Property Law, 135, 137 (Robert C. Ellickson, Carol M. Rose & Bruce A. Ackerman et al., eds., 2002). At its most basic level, it means that the essence of owning something is this: that you enjoy its benefits but also suffer its drawbacks.

But where does property come from? One answer can be found in English philosopher John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government. In the treatise, Locke famously proposed that because each person owns his or her own body, then that can extend to the labor performed with the body. When an individual adds their own labor (i.e., their own property) to an external thing, that thing can then become their own because they have added their labor. 

Locke's theory addresses manual or physical labor (his classic example is picking an apple from a tree and thus gaining ownership of the apple). However, according to this study, we may consider creative labor to have special weight. In the study, researchers investigated whether preschool children and adults believe that ownership of one person’s property is transferred to a second person following the second person’s investment of creative labor in that property. The researchers found that participants were more likely to transfer ownership to the second individual after he or she invested creative labor in the object than after any other manipulations (holding the object, making small changes to it). The researchers also noted that this effect was significantly stronger in preschool children than in adults.

The question of manual or creative labor aside, one of the most interesting things about property is at least highlighted: the concept of property is studied by esteemed professors, elucidated by the great Western philosophers, and yet well-understood by preschoolers at play.