The Mere Ownership Effect

[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
Beggan (1992) criticized the endowment effect from a social psychology perspective and described the mere ownership effect, whereby individuals who own an item are expected to value it more positively than individuals who do not own the item. He argued that this occurs due to an owner creating a psychological association between themselves and the items they own, followed by a psychological drive to maintain a positive sense of self. Consider being gifted a car. According to Beggan (1992) you would subsequently have a subconscious incentive to overvalue that car, so that you feel better about yourself for owning it. Or put simply, you want to see yourself as awesome, so anything you own must be awesome too, because you own it. This explanation differs from the endowment effect, as it suggests framing in respect to losses or gains is less important (or irrelevant). Rather, there is an innate motivational drive to always overvalue owned items. This explanation however is a bit controversial, and Barone et al. (1997) argue that Beggan’s (1992) results (which they failed to replicate) may have simply occurred due to experimenter bias (poor study design). Yet a recent meta-analysis (Białek et al., 2022) suggests that there is robust evidence for a moderate mere ownership effect across studies, but limited direct experimental evidence, and entanglement issues with the endowment effect. Thus, it would likely be wise to consider both the endowment effect and the mere ownership effect when experimenting with strategy in respect to marketing and user experience. It is also important to note that neuroscientific evidence suggests that the neural correlates of the mere ownership effect for owned items also occur for imagined ownership (Kim & Johnson, 2014). Similarly, Stefanczyk et al. (2021) found that the mere ownership effect can also be extended to immaterial concepts like “truth” or “ideas” but suggest caution due to only running a single experiment.

Applying The Mere Ownership Effect to Marketing

As the mere ownership effect suggests that ownership enhances the value of a product/service, you should always emphasize ownership after the purchase of any product/service and prime individuals with positive thoughts. For example, if someone purchases an item, send an email congratulating them on being a proud owner, and let them know other people love the product as well. This will combine mere ownership with social proof to enhance positive feelings in respect to your brand, and lead to more return customers. Further, you should work towards creating brand experiences that lead customers to imagine using your product or service.

Practical Examples of The Mere Ownership Effect

Imagining Ownership

One of the most effective ways to engage the mere ownership event is to prompt your customers to imagine owning your product or service. This can be accomplished through advertisements framed as a question, such as “Imagine how it would feel to drive an X-car” or through media experiences. For example, if you are selling vacations, you might show a first-person video of a beautiful beach at a luxury hotel with a narrator just saying “imagine.” With modern technology, you can take advantage of social media influencers, virtual reality, animated browser experiences, and more, to create these media experiences. And this can increase conversions and drive sales. But it can also help with brand perception, as the endowment effect will cause those imagining your product/service to associate positive thoughts with your brand.

Creating Social Norms of Ownership

If the mere ownership effect does in fact extend to immaterial concepts, turning your brand into a social norm can help create a sense of ownership directed towards your brand, rather than towards your products or services. Consider fashion brands like Gucci. Individuals who wear clothes from Gucci may have a sense of ownership in respect to the idea of the brand, as the brand helps reinforce their identity and beliefs about their self-concept (e.g. that they are fashionable, wealthy, etc.). Thus, if you connect your customers to your brand in a salient way, they might experience some level of ownership, and thus be more likely to stick with your brand even if a superior alternative is presented to them. For this to work, you need to focus on shared ideas or concepts related to your brand (rather than your brand itself). For example, you may link your brand to an existing subculture (e.g. gamer culture), and work towards permeating the belief that your brand somehow represents a set of shared ideas or ideals. It is important to note however that evidence supporting the extension of the mere ownership effect to ideas is relatively new, so any experiments in this domain should be carried out with caution and lots of testing.

Reinforcing Ownership Through Customization

It’s one thing to own a product. It’s another thing to own a customized product that was designed or created specifically for/by you, and is different from anyone else’s product. Many independent sellers on Etsy offer customization services like name or message engravings for their clients, as they tend to make great gifts. Further, many artists offer custom commissions at higher prices, and create works of art catered to their client’s desires. These types of products likely elicit greater feelings of ownership. With modern technology such as 3D-printing and on-demand manufacturing, customization is becoming more viable, and a norm for many businesses. For example, Nike lets you create custom shoes on their website. Research suggests that customization increases feelings of ownership, and subsequently leads to individuals placing a greater value on the product they receive (Franke et al., 2009; Yan et al., 2021). However, recent research from Klesse et al. (2019) suggests that customization may also hurt appraisal, depending on an individual’s pre-existing self-image and if they are able to project that self-image onto the product they customize. For example, consider someone who doesn’t think they are fashionable customizing a shirt. They may end up undervaluing the shirt due to extending their personal self-concept onto the product. Thus, it’s important to consider the context of your business and what you offer when setting up customization options. Further, you might consider reinforcing positive beliefs about one’s choices or self-concept, such as using an AI or “live design experts” to rate a customization before the customer makes the purchase.

Research Example of The Mere Ownership Effect

Understanding Psychological Ownership

Peck and Luangrath (2022) present a review of psychological ownership which covers a number of techniques that help enhance perceptions of ownership. These include visual aspects of the item such as aesthetics (Townsend & Sood, 2012), tactile aspects such as using touchscreens (Brasel & Gips, 2014), and odors such as using specific scents to create a sense of closeness (Ruzeviciute et al., 2020). As there are technical nuances to all of these ownership-enhancing strategies we suggest you read the cited materials before attempting related strategies. And always make sure to test, as many of these studies have yet to be replicated, or may be context dependent.

Works Cited

Barone, M. J., Shimp, T. A., & Sprott, D. E. (1997). Mere ownership revisited: A robust effect? Journal of Consumer Psychology, 6(3), 257-284.

Beggan, J. K. (1992). On the social nature of nonsocial perception: The mere ownership effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(2), 229-237.

Białek, M., Gao, Y., Yao, D., & Feldman, G. (2022). Owning leads to valuing: Meta-analysis of the mere ownership effect. European Journal of Social Psychology, 53(1), 90-107.

Brasel, S. A., & Gips, J. (2014). Tablets, touchscreens, and touchpads: How varying touch interfaces trigger psychological ownership and endowment. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24(2), 226-233.

Franke, N., Schreier, M., Kaiser, U. (2009). The “I designed it myself” effect in mass customization. Management Science, 56(1), 125-140.

Kleese, A., Cornil, Y., Dahl, D. W., & Gros, N. (2019). The secret ingredient is me: Customization prompts self-image-consistent product perceptions. Journal of Marketing Research, 56(5), 879-893.

Kim, K., & Johnson, M. K. (2014). Extended self: Spontaneous activation of medial prefrontal cortex by objects that are ‘mine’. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(7), 1006-1012.

Peck, J., & Luangrath, A. W. (2022). A review and future avenues for psychological ownership in consumer research. Consumer Psychology Review, 6(1), 52-74.

Ruzeviciute, R., Kamleitner, B., & Biswas, D. (2020). Designed to s(m)ell: When scented advertising induces proximity and enhances appeal. Journal of Marketing Research, 57(2), 315–331.

Stefanczyk, M., Rokosz, M. & Białek, M. (2021). Mere ownership effect is equally pronounced in material and immaterial objects. Social Psychology 52(6), 387-391.

Townsend, C., & Sood, S. (2012). Self-affirmation through the choice of highly aesthetic products. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(2), 415-428.

Yan, K., Zhong, S., & Samart, P. (2021). The name effect in customization service: The role of psychological ownership and self-threat. Journal of Service Theory and Practice, 31(4), 493-511.

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