The Nonobvious Basis of Ownership: Preschool Children Trace the History and Value of Owned Objects


  • The research was supported by NICHD Grant HD-36043 to Gelman. We are grateful to the children and parents who participated in the research. We thank Alex Was, Amanda Markowitz, and Jaime Bortnick for their assistance.

concerning this article should be addressed to Susan Gelman, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 530 Church St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1043. Electronic mail may be sent to


For adults, ownership is nonobvious: (a) determining ownership depends more on an object’s history than on perceptual cues, and (b) ownership confers special value on an object (“endowment effect”). This study examined these concepts in preschoolers (2.0–4.4) and adults (= 112). Participants saw toy sets in which 1 toy was designated as the participant’s and 1 as the researcher’s. Toys were then scrambled and participants were asked to identify their toy and the researcher’s toy. By 3 years of age, participants used object history to determine ownership and identified even undesirable toys as their own. Furthermore, participants at all ages showed an endowment effect (greater liking of items designated as their own). Thus, even 2-year-olds appreciate the nonobvious basis of ownership.