What’s Mine is Mine
Exploring how the ownership affect manifests in children with autism.
For many people, whether or not you think an object is valuable depends on whether or not it’s yours. Recent research by Hartley and Fisher (2018) explores if this bias applies to children with autism.
Remember when you were a kid and refused to share your favorite stuffed elephant with your classmate, or even trade it for an alternative stuffed monkey? According to psychologists, this attachment you formed with your toy can be described as the “extended self hypothesis.” The extended self hypothesis argues that you become attached to an object because you own it, and through this ownership, the object becomes an extension of yourself. This in turn leads to a phenomenon called the ownership effect – the idea that a person values his or her own object more than a similar or identical object that is not in their possession.
However, the extended self hypothesis requires a level of self-awareness – an ability that is compromised for children with autism. For instance, compared to peers, children with autism are less likely to use first person pronouns (such as I, me, and my), express more difficulty in communicating their emotions and intentions, and have more trouble recalling personal experiences. Because the ownership effect is rooted in a person’s ability to recognize the self, children with autism may not necessarily demonstrate it.
What Did the Study Look At?
Realizing this, Calum Hartely and Sophie Fisher conducted a series of three experiments to determine if children with autism over-value an object merely because they own it. Each experiment was done with a group of children with autism and a group of children without autism (the control group) in order to detect differences between the two populations. There were 18 children in each group ranging between the ages of 3-11 years old.
In the first experiment, children were randomly assigned a toy and then offered a chance to trade their toy for alternative ones. In the second experiment, children got to pick a toy and then were asked to rate the desirability of the other toys (with a star rating scale) including one that was identical to theirs. In the last experiment, children were given a toy, asked to rate the desirability of other toys including a copy of theirs, and finally given the option to trade their toy for the identical one.
What Did the Study Find?
Hartley and Fisher found that children with autism did not favor a toy they were given and were more likely to trade it for an alternative than children without autism. Both groups of children were less likely to trade a toy they picked compared to one they had been given; however, children with autism did not over-value the self-selected toy compared to an identical one. They evaluated the toys without taking into account who owned them.
These results tell us that children with autism demonstrate less of an ownership effect than typically developing children. In other words, to many children with autism, owning an object does not make that object more valuable to them as it typically does in children without autism.
What Does All This Mean?
Understanding how children with autism view objects they own is important in realizing how they interpret their environment. The authors propose that children with autism are focusing on what an object is rather than whom it belongs to. For parents, this information can be useful when helping your child through day-to-day activities such as sharing crayons with classmates, choosing a teddy bear at the toy store, and needing to replace old or broken toys.
Hartley, & Fisher. (2018). Mine is better than yours: Investigating the ownership effect in children with autism spectrum disorder and typically developing children. Cognition, 172, 26-36.