Jean Piaget, a founding father of child psychology, witnessed time and time again the anguish of a young child separated from an object he considered his own. He realized that very early in life we develop a sense of ownership. He attributed this to “the endowment effect,” in which we value an object more highly when we own it.
In an experiment, a group of students were offered a choice of a coffee mug or a chocolate bar in exchange for helping with research. The choices were pretty much even. A second group was given the coffee mug first, and were later offered a chance to exchange it for the chocolate. Only 11% wanted to swap, because they had placed a higher value on the object they started out with.
In another experiment, participants placed items into baskets labelled “mine” and “Alex’s.” Their brains showed more activity when touching and looking at “their” objects.
In adulthood, our attachments become even more elaborate than those of children. We feel connected to lost loved ones by holding on to heirlooms.
Owning an object that once belonged to a celebrity makes us feel as though we’ve purchased the essence of the person. Half of the participants in a study were told a putter they were using was once owned by a golf champion. They sunk more balls into the hole than the other group, who were told there was nothing particular special about the putter.
The attachment and need to protect our belongings is sometimes exaggerated, resulting in hoarding.
The growing popularity of ebooks and digital music will be interesting to watch in the near future. Right now, it is hard to say whether the decreased emphasis on books and CDs will have an effect on the endowment effect. For the time being, there is a very distinct satisfaction in holding an object that belongs to us.