But what is Sense of Ownership, anyway?

What is ownership? What does it mean to own something? Of course you can get a reasonable answer by looking up “ownership” in a dictionary, but sense of ownership is a much more vague concept. We will try to explore some attributes of and factors from which the sense of ownership originates.

To explore the meaning of the sense of ownership let me start by asking you a series of questions with special director’s commentary added for good measure.

  1. Do you own the cup of coffee you just paid for? “Yes”
  2. Do you own an apartment flat that is legally yours? “I mean…Yes.” Now, Do you own it as much as you owned that coffee cup? “Maybe a bit less than the coffee cup, I guess. I mean, I can do whatever with the cup but I cannot play very loud music in my apartment everyday all day even if I want to.”
  3. Do you own your pet? “(in an awkward voice) Yes, . . .I guess. And yes, I own it less than the coffee cup. The pet will fight back/ get mad if I treat it badly. It also has its own mood which I cannot always control”
  4. Now, do you own your newborn baby? “In an even more awkward voice: Kinda…. yes . I mean functionally the newborn and the pet are almost equivalent. But of course I treat the baby and pet differently. You can let the pet sleep on the floor naked everyday, but you can’t do that with a baby, can you?”
  5. Why did all those kids cry when Pluto was deemed not a planet? “This is different from the other questions!” I know, but do think about why many kids around the globe were sad when they demoted Pluto from planet status.(Hint: Kids think they own the idea that Pluto is a planet)

Of course this exercise tells us that we have some sense of ownership about things we don’t legally own but more importantly, that the sense of ownership is a sliding scale. You don’t own everything equally. The bench in the park you sit on, the celebrities you follow, your family members, that one physics law you always thought was your favourite, and of course the company you work for: You feel some sense of ownership for all of these things to a varying degree.

A typical Sense of Ownership scale may look something like this:

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Sense of Ownership scale

Source of the Sense of Ownership

Now that we know what sense of ownership may look like. Let’s delve deeper into where this sense originates from. According to my absolutely zero research, this sense seems to originate from two key factors. They are:

  1. Influence or control.
  2. Predictability.

The Control part of the equation is pretty clear. If you own a cup of coffee, you can control its fate. You can drink it, throw it, you can do whatever you want with it. You own it because you control it.

But what about the predictability? Why does something have to be predictable to be owned? To understand this, let’s do a thought experiment.

Imagine you are one of those mad scientists from sci-fi movies. As always you were trying to create a superior human in your lab (Using a lot of Gamma rays and glowing green goo, of course) and you accidentally created a super powerful monster. The monster escapes your facility and is wreaking havoc in the city.

A super powerful monster destroying a city is probably the closest thing to a truly unpredictable entity we mortals can imagine. Now do you… the scientist… the creator of this monster… think you still own him? Legally you probably still own the monster, after all, you created him. But now you don’t know what he will do next, you cannot predict if he will destroy that office building or go for a swim in the ocean or fly away in space. Because his predictability is drastically diminished since he left your lab, so did your sense of ownership of him. (LPT: This is exactly what happens when kids grow up)

Taking this into account the sense of ownership scale from above can be better described as a 2D Pareto chart:

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The top right in this graph is maximum ownership and bottom left is the least. Notice that the very low predictability portion does not have anything in there. Essentially if something is truly random, it cannot be owned.

Crimes and misplaced sense of ownership

I think many small and big crimes and legal disputes can be explained by assuming the criminal has a misplaced sense of ownership.

A stalker may have a misplaced sense of ownership regarding a stranger he/she finds attractive; A rash driver can literally think he owns the road (Road kya tere baap ka hai kya — is not so rhetorical of a question now, right?) And of course two brothers fighting for a piece of hereditary land may both truly think they own the land.

One more thing

One more factor that obviously goes into the sense of ownership equation is affinity. You think you own your newborn kid because you love them. You own your cup of coffee because you want it else you would have tossed it in garbage, ending your ownership.

Affinity is the fundamental prerequisite for ownership. Knowing what we now know about Affinity (Love), control and ownership, I think we can better appreciate the classic Sting lyrics:

If you love somebody, Set them free

Footnote —

[1] Temporal Aspect of Control

What is the difference between owning something and renting it? You could argue that when you rent a car, you have significant control over the car, you certainly have predictability. Then, why don’t you feel like you own the car? The reason is the temporary nature of your control. You know for a fact that your control over the car will come to an end.

This is partly the reason why you don’t feel like you own your pet or newborn to the same degree as your phone or coffee. The life of the pet is limited, your newborn will eventually grow up, ending your control over them.

[2] Flaws in the argument

The framework described above is by no means perfect or complete. It’s more like a rough heuristic which worked in almost all the simplified cases I could think of. Please use it as a starting point to develop your own theory of ownership instead of a definitive guide.

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