One of the hallmarks of ownership is the right to control one's property. Living beings thus pose an interesting puzzle for ownership, since they have some capacity to decide what happens to themselves—they can direct their own motion, pursue their own goals, and make their own decisions. Recent work has shown that adults consider this autonomy to be the key factor in determining whether a human (or human-like) being can be owned. However, little is known about how children reason about the ownership of living beings. Across three experiments we show that children (ages 4–7) use principles of control and autonomy to reason about the ownership of familiar and novel animals. At all ages tested, children were more likely to say that a typically wild animal (e.g., a bear) was owned if a homeowner had controlled its movements by putting it in a cage, rather than simply standing near it in their yard (Experiment 1). Children also used this cue of control to predict whether novel animals were owned (Experiment 2)—and for these unfamiliar animals, the effect of control was even larger. Finally, Experiment 3 found that children's judgments were not specifically driven by the use of a cage to control the animal, but also extended to animals that inherently had the ability to escape (e.g., fly or jump). These autonomous animals were judged as non-owned, while those that could not escape were judged as owned. The use of these principles was evident at all ages, but became stronger with age, particularly when considering novel animals. These are the first studies, to our knowledge, to investigate the development of reasoning about the ownership of animals, and they suggest that, like adults, children consider autonomy an essential factor in the ownership of living things.
Starmans, C. & Friedman, O. (2016) If I am free you can't own me: Autonomy makes entities less ownable. Cognition, 148, 145-153.
Christina Starmans Ori Friedman