The innocence of children has long been contrasted with the worldliness of adults. One of the most common such misconceptions can be traced to the idea of sharing, and even parents who should know better tend to believe the reason kids fight so much with other kids over objects they value is that they simply do not understand the idea of ownership.
A paper presented at the annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science has argued that the truth is far more complicated, and that ideas of ownership may be innate rather than acquired. Disputes over objects are common in early childhood, and so pre-schoolers might be expected to have only a limited appreciation of ownership. Contrary to this, they are seen to draw on sophisticated principles in reasoning about ownership, and they may even value ownership more strongly than adults do.
A report in ScienceNews on the conference quotes University of Waterloo, Canada, psychologist Ori Friedman who presented the paper: “A concept of ownership rights may be a product of the way we naturally think early in life.”
The report also describes Friedman’s experiment in some detail. It involves 40 pre-schoolers, aged 4 and 5, and 44 adults who were shown an image of a cartoon boy holding a crayon who appeared above the word ‘user’ and a cartoon girl who appeared above the word ‘owner.’ After hearing from an experimenter that the girl wanted her crayon back, volunteers ‘were asked which cartoon child should get the object. About 75 per cent of 4- and 5-year-olds decided in favour of the owner, versus about 20 per cent of adults. A second experiment consisted of more than 100 kids, aged 3 to 7, and 30 adults. In this case, participants saw the same cartoon boy and girl but were told that the crayon belonged to the school that the two imaginary children attended. Nearly everyone, regardless of age, said that the user should keep the crayon for as long as needed in this situation. In other words, kids distinguished between people using an owned or a non-owned object.’