Private Property

What does it mean to own something? It depends what society you’re in.

In Western culture, ownership is strongly linked to ideas about individualism and personal identity. But the same isn’t necessarily true in other cultures, and it turns out the way the societies we live in view ownership might fundamentally affect how we see the world.

To learn more about the psychology of ownership, British and Australian researchers conducted two experiments with groups of both Asian and Western participants.

In both experiments, participants played an (admittedly not very exciting) computer game that involved moving household objects into baskets. The point of the game was to move all objects belonging to the participant into one basket, and all objects belonging to other people into the other basket. The objects and baskets were color coded based on whether they were self-owned or other-owned.

After the first experiment, participants were given an unexpected memory test in which they were asked to pick out which objects they’d encountered during the game. When they completed test, Western participants showed a bias toward remembering self-owned objects – that is, they were better at recognizing objects they’d put in the self-owned basket than the other-owned basket.

On the other hand, Asian participants showed no such bias. They remembered both self-owned and other-owned objects at about the same rate.

In the second experiment, the game was tweaked to make it harder to move objects into their respective baskets. This forced participants to pay more attention to the objects they were moving across the screen.

Once again, Western participants were better at remembering self-owned objects. This time, however, Asian participants actually remembered other-owned objects at a higher rate.

Therefore, it appears that the ideas about ownership we learn from the cultures we live in affect how much attention we pay to different objects and, ultimately, how well we remember them.

The authors of the study suggest that it goes back to how we see the world in terms of our selves. We’re all biased toward information that we think is more relevant to us, that has to do more with us personally.

What this study shows, though, is that how we interpret things in relation to our selves is influenced by the ideas we get from our societies about what our selves are to begin with. It may be that since Western culture views property as more of an extension of the self, Westerners interpret objects they own as more relevant to themselves based purely on the fact that they own them.

What all the implications of this finding are remain to be seen. But in the meantime, it never hurts to keep in mind how much the way we see the world is learned from the societies we live in.

What d’you think? Leave your take on all this below. Own that comment section.

Image: FreeImages.com/matt williams