Origins of Possession
Human possession psychology originates from deeply rooted experiential capacities shared with other animals. However, unlike other animals,
we are a uniquely self-conscious species concerned with reputation, and
possessions affect our perception of how we exist in the eyes of others.
This book discusses the psychology surrounding the ways in which
humans experience possession, claim ownership, and share, from both
a developmental and a cross-cultural perspective. Philippe Rochat
explores the origins of human possession and its symbolic development
across cultures. He proposes that human possession psychology is particularly revealing of human nature, and also the source of our elusive
PHILIPPE ROCHAT is Professor of Psychology at Emory University
in Atlanta and the head of the Emory Infant and Child Laboratory. His
research focuses on the developmental origins of human self-awareness
and social cognition in infants and children growing up in different social
and cultural circumstances. His work includes Others in Mind
(Cambridge University Press, 2009), The Infant’s World (2001), Early
Social Cognition (1999), and The Self in Infancy (1995).
Origins of Possession
Owning and Sharing in Development
University Printing House, Cambridge CB2 8BS, United Kingdom
Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge.
It furthers the University’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of
education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.
Information on this title: www.cambridge.org/9781107032125
© Philippe Rochat 2014
This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without the written
permission of Cambridge University Press.
First published 2014
Printed in the United Kingdom by Clays, St Ives plc
A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data
Rochat, Philippe, 1950–
Origins of possession : owning and sharing in development / Philippe Rochat.
ISBN 978-1-107-03212-5 (hardback)
1. Property – Social aspects. 2. Property – Psychological
aspects. 3. Possessiveness. I. Title.
ISBN 978-1-107-03212-5 Hardback
Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of
URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication,
and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain,
accurate or appropriate.
Foreword by Jerome S. Bruner
Introduction: making sense of human possession
Psychology: principles of human possession
Possession and ownership transfer
Symbolic spinoffs of possession
Development: human ontogeny of possession
Ownership in development
Sharing in development
Culture: human possession in context
Culture and possession
Possession in children across cultures
Conclusion: Great Transformation
It is a privilege, though a somewhat daunting one, to introduce the reader
to this striking book. For though the subject of possession is an ancient
one, it is a forever difﬁcult and controversial one. While “possessing”
something is a crucial feature of what we call ownership, it is by no means
the only aspect of that conventionalized phenomenon. Indeed, as Rochat
puts it, the “transition from possession to property” is the main issue of
this challenging book.
It is argued that this “possession-to-property transition” is governed by
three distinctively human characteristics: human self-consciousness,
human symbolic capacity, and characteristically prolonged human immaturity, and this volume sets forth a rich and detailed account of each of
What is particularly striking about Rochat’s account of this transition is
the breadth and depth of his inquiry. This is a scholarly book in the
deepest sense. It scans a vast body of literature and treats it with genuine
respect – whether it is in a close look at Aristotelian essays, particularly
well explored, or in considering the most recent literature on the behavior
of young infants carried out in the last decade or two. Indeed, the discussion of changing conceptions of mind in the early and late nineteenth
century as well as in our own times is masterly – not to mention his
rethinking of the years leading to the French Revolution at the close of
the eighteenth century.
It is no exaggeration to classify this book as an excursion into the
cultural history of our conceptions of human development, and yet we
must recognize its vivid contemporaneity as an exercise in classic intellectual history. I, for example, am currently much concerned with the
evolution of legal systems (as in my recent Making Stories: Law,
Literature, Life (2002)). I wish there had been the opportunity of reading
Rochat’s book before I’d written mine!
One last point. I have long felt that the human sciences risk superﬁciality by moving further and further from the classic epistemic concerns
of philosophy – concerns about the nature of “knowing.” I see this book as
a sign that things are changing. For surely it is concerned as much with
epistemology as with psychology. And so it should be!
Jerome S. Bruner
This book was on my mind for some years, particularly while doing crosscultural research with children in the South Paciﬁc, Brazil, and other
regions of the world. As far as I can remember, possession always struck
me as a crucial aspect of psychology, rarely considered in full by intellectuals and other researchers in the behavioral and developmental sciences.
It always seemed to me that most conﬂicts and concerns in the animal
mind pertain to protection of what one controls and feels entitled to.
Everything always appeared to me as deriving from issues revolving
around possession or ownership. I became obsessed with the idea and
started to look at the world in terms of possession as others tend to reduce
psychic life to sex or violence.
After a few aborted attempts, I started writing the book while visiting
and teaching at PUC University in Rio de Janeiro in August 2012, a ﬁrst
fresh breath of great freedom surrounded by welcoming friends and
colleagues: my friend Pedro Salem, my generous host Carolina
Lampreia, and Octavio Domont de Serpa and his wife Fernanda who
offered me a quiet, bright, and comfortable place to stay and write. I
enjoyed every minute, thank you. I ﬁnally got down to it and wrote the
book in one intense period in the spring of 2013 while on sabbatical leave
in Paris, enjoying a total absence of constraints to drift and explore the
topic ad libitum. I want to express my appreciation to my employer
institution, the College of Arts and Sciences of Emory University in
Atlanta, for allowing the absolute freedom and open horizon required
for such an enterprise.
Warm appreciation to my faithful friend François Bertrand, who followed my progress every step of the way and with whom I shared ideas
almost twice weekly, taking long walks, roaming the streets, and having
lunches, each time at a new, memorable place with memorable people in a
city he knows, inhabits, and loves like nobody else. He gave me constant
encouragement and undivided attention, always ready to share his vast
experience and knowledge, at time even with bibliographic references . . .
Thank you Francesco, I’m lucky to have you as a friend.
While writing this book, I met people on the streets of Paris, at
random talks, cafés, and old bookstores, particularly the one on my
street, the Librairie des Alpes, on rue de Seine, in the shadow of the
Institute and the French Academy cupola building, as well as the adjacent Bibliothèque Mazarine where I wrote almost daily. I had conversations with the bookstore manager and now friend, Pierre Masson, an
erudite, curious, and irreverent storyteller. We talked over cups of bitter
coffee at this soulful bookshop, surrounded by old mountain climbing
books and pictures of victorious mountaineers bending pine shelves.
Conversations with Pierre and all the bookworms, history bum derelicts
constantly roaming the shop, oriented some of the book’s content and
certainly inﬂuenced its spirit.
My appreciation also to Barbara Carnevalli, whom I met by luck at a
crisp talk on “glory and the struggle for reputation in Thomas Hobbes”
she gave in Paris early in my stay. I enjoyed her brilliance and beneﬁted
from her intellectual passion and philosophical guidance.
Michael Heller, my childhood friend, has been instrumental, as
always, in cleaning up my ideas, playing devil’s advocate, and giving
me renewed intellectual impetus in my research and soul searching.
There is nothing I value more than his wit at detecting wrong intellectual
paths and weak arguments, his ability to zero in to what’s important.
Since adolescence, I have beneﬁted from his encyclopedic culture
and provocative thoughts. I continue to do so. His friendship is invaluable. Likewise, my gratitude to another, more recent friend Gustavo
Faigenbaum, whom I ﬁnally located in the Argentinian town of
Gualeguaychú, of all places, after reading his 2005 precious book on
children’s economic experience. We eventually taught together at
FLACSO in Buenos Aires. Riding buses and driving across the pampas
toward other teaching gigs (Parana and Gualeguaychú), with Gustavo
lecturing me on Hegel and Greek tragedies, and hanging out with his
lovely family, we had long conversations that changed and shaped my
views on possession but also my views on psychology in general that I
always tend to construe too much in individualistic terms, isolated from
institutions – to a fault – probably because of my Piagetian background.
He keeps reminding me of the collective and it has been a real education,
even though he thinks this book is still lacking much of the institutional
view he tries to instill in me. What can I say? I confess that I am primarily
attached to the temporality of embodied experience. I cannot take as
seriously as I should all the things that will survive us.
A warm thanks to my faithful former doctoral student Erin Robbins, for
letting me keep rambling on and bouncing ideas for the past six years, for
her friendship and support, and for all her diligent help in making sense of
the mountain of data we collected together in the USA but also in remote
places of the South Paciﬁc and Central America. Her good work, kindness, humor, understanding, and intelligence made a huge difference.
Finally, thanks to the French taxpayers for maintaining and allowing
public access to wonderful historical and very aristocratic study places like
the seventeenth-century Bibliothèque Mazarine, the oldest public library
in France. That is where most of this book was written, under the gaze of
old dignitaries’ busts lining the vast reading room with its high ceiling,
three-story-high book shelving, tall ladders, and parquet ﬂoor crackling
under each step of the roaming librarians desperately trying to be quiet.
Descartes and the French illustrious intellectual past haunted the room. It
was very solemn and reverential.
While writing, I had the spirit of these long-gone ancestors hovering
over my shoulders, keeping me in check. They comforted me. My hope is
that I did not betray the tradition of excellence they are supposed to stand
for. I dedicate this book to all of these illustrious ghosts and the French
taxpayers allowing them to remain alive.
Making sense of human possession
Death is the issue. Knowing that one day we shall be dispossessed shapes
our lives in unique ways. In the broadest and deepest sense, this is what
this book is about, as dispossession is the necessary counterpart and
deﬁning element of possession. Without the knowledge of losing, we
would not have any reasons to control and hold on to things the way we
do. It gives us reasons to hope and discover faith, but also to despair and
suffer existential angst like no other animal can. This knowledge comes
with a sense of awe and absolute puzzlement. It has inspired millions of
books, and shaped rituals and artistic expressions since the dawn of
humanity. All can be said to revolve around the knowing of our pending
dispossession of embodied self-experience.
The bottom line is that human psychology, unlike any other animal
psychology, is in essence self-conscious: a psychology whereby subjects
constantly reﬂect and elaborate upon their own value and place in the
world, particularly the social world. Arguably, this is unmatched in the
animal kingdom. As a case in point, humans are the only species having
“fashion instinct,” putting makeup on, wearing clothes, decorating themselves with accessories manifesting insatiable care for their own reputation
and what they project to the public eyes. We are the only species selfobjectifying through the evaluative eyes of others.
Self-consciousness and possession
This book is about how being the self-conscious creatures we are
changes the way we relate to things, how we possess and experience
having exclusive control over things, an inclination we share with all
other living creatures. It is about how being self-conscious transforms
the way we relate both affectively and cognitively to things: the way we
get attached to them, how we cherish and fetishize what we own, ﬁghting
for it, but also how we are capable of relinquishing exclusive control
over things by giving, sharing, or simply being forcefully dispossessed
Origins of Possession
The question of interest here is what underlies the human experience
of possession. Likewise, and as a necessary counterpart, what underlies
the human experience of dispossession? Indeed, in order to share one ﬁrst
needs to own. So, what is the interplay between possession and dispossession in the context of human self-conscious psychology?
In an earlier book with the same publisher,1 I wrote about the social
underpinnings of self-consciousness, which I view as a unique human
adaptation. Unlike any other, human psychology is both symbolic
and self-conscious. These two cardinal characteristics of human psychology are in fact inseparable, supporting each other: in order to be
self-conscious one needs to have some capacity to be symbolic, and vice
versa. By symbolic I mean the basic ability to be referential in thoughts,
capable of holding and manipulating multiple representations about
things, the capacity of fathoming that something might stand for something else. Symbolic means the mental ability of going beyond the
literality of experience, capable of becoming “meta” and not just literal
about the world. As part of this symbolic and self-conscious psychology,
the goal now is to capture how humans develop their ways of expressing
and dealing with possession.
I try to show that we develop speciﬁc ways of possessing and organizing our social lives around possessions. There is a necessary counterpart to the human ways of possessing expressed in irrational fears of
being dispossessed and losing control over what we own and feel
entitled to. As part of the same package, humans also develop devastating envies, insatiable needs for more ownership and control, more
power over the environment, be it physical or social. These ways can
be pathological and devastating, but also the source of great cultural
and legal codiﬁcations meant to buffer deleterious effects on group
As a general model, what is proposed here is to look at the phenomenon
from a multilayered awareness perspective, what I call the onion metaphor of mind states. The idea is simple: in the course of development, as
well as in evolution, various levels of awareness emerge or have
emerged, piling up on top of each other, like the layers of an onion.
Our awareness of the world is made of these various layers through
Rochat, Others in Mind.
which we constantly navigate, through being non-conscious, unconscious, aware, co-aware, conscious, or co-conscious. Attached to these
layers of awareness are a variety of possible mind states. Mind states are
part of the experience of sentient creatures that are not just sensing
the world but feeling it. I am referring here to creatures that, unlike
machines, even minimally experience pain or fear for example – in
other words and bluntly put, creatures that have affective life in them.
It is within this simple schema that we want to approach the complexity
of human possession psychology, particularly from a developmental
Facts and ideas about possession
Important works exist on the psychology of possession. They come from a
broad array of perspectives including interdisciplinary,2 marketing/consumerism,3 organizational/management,4 or social psychology (social
identity and social constructionist views on identity).5 However, only a
few major developmental works exist, primarily from the 1970s and
1980s.6 Recently a timely resurgence of interest on the topic has occurred
from the point of view of infant and child development. New experimental
and theoretical takes are proposed.7 For sure, books and articles abound
on topics like attachment, money, property, territoriality, copyrights, etc.,
but there are few on the psychology of possession with a particular focus
on the “origins” question from both an ontogenetic and a phylogenetic
point of view, particularly from a more phenomenological and developmental perspective.
The book compiles a large body of selected empirical and “falsiﬁable”
facts relevant to the question of what the human experience of possession is made of at its origins and in development. What can be critically
seen as less falsiﬁable is the meaning making of such facts and conceptual ideas that the book primarily intends to provide. The reader should
know that this is not a survey textbook providing an exhaustive inventory
of ﬁndings spanning the “possession ﬁeld” as a whole. The book instead
proposes a fresh look at the topic with the intention of providing
Rudmin, “To own is to be perceived to own.”
Belk, “The ineluctable mysteries of possessions.”
Pierce and Jussila, Psychological Ownership and the Organizational Context.
Dittmar, The Social Psychology of Material Possessions.
Furby, “Possession in humans.”
See Ross and Friedman, “Origins of ownership of property.”
Origins of Possession
novel ideas and integration of ideas by digging abundantly and opportunistically into philosophy, biology, sociology, anthropology, and
developmental psychology, my own specialty. The goal is meaning making, not cataloguing or dressing a laundry list of existing research. It is to
make sense of human possession psychology by providing new ontological parsing and a new framing of three main questions: what makes
human possession psychology unique compared to other animals? Where does it
come from? What determines it?
Possession and morality
Probably the boldest, most provocative idea running through the book is
that the human sense of what is right and what is wrong (i.e., shared and
explicit morality) could arise from conﬂicts over possession. Think of it:
six of the Ten Commandments are directly linked to issues surrounding
possession and exclusive control over things: “Thou shalt not covet, steal,
kill, commit adultery, bear false witness, or have other gods.” This is the
Old Testament’s vindication that possession, particularly the risk of social
disharmony via possession conﬂicts, is not estranged from the genealogy
of morality. This is arguably true from both an evolutionary and a developmental perspective.
In the midst of competition over limited resources, moral principles
are necessary requirements for group survival, be they implicit as in the
reluctance to kill or engage in incest, or explicit as in the codiﬁed
systems of retributive justice that exist across human societies. At a
very basic level, human moral principles arise from the necessary selective pressure of avoiding conﬂicts and maintaining social harmony.
Once again, these principles can be explicit as in written laws, or implicit
as in the normative ways one ought to behave in relation to others. This
would be the bottom-line warranty of group preservation and growth of
the species, but also the preservation of individuals in relation to their
If we accept that such a broad statement holds some truth, then we can
gauge how relevant it is to engage in trying to make sense of the human
psychology of possession, and its origins in both evolution and development. Group harmony and harmony of the individual within the group
demand some solutions as to who owns what and why. It requires some
shared principles on how to distribute justice when resources are scarce.
Individuals are required to abide by these principles in order to survive
and avoid being ostracized as freeriders or bullies. There is indeed
an instinctive, innate need to afﬁliate with others and a universal fear
of being socially rejected, the driving idea of my earlier book Others
The prevalence of conﬂicts over possession is an emotional mineﬁeld,
both in human history and in the life of the developing child. For children
and from the outset of their development, these conﬂicts are rich soil for
the early learning of shared values and social norms. Possession conﬂicts
provide the young child with the opportunity to experience and observe
most conspicuously normative ways of handling social stress, the active
attempts by adults and other peers at restoring group harmony, the
enforcement and assertion of shared social practices, etiquettes, and
ultimately shared moral principles.
Possession, as we shall see, is unquestionably an important part of social
learning, because of what it reveals when conﬂicts occur, but also because
it is in the context of possession that children can learn, in the most
conspicuous fashion, normative ways of sharing with others, and hence
can learn shared, acceptable (normative) ways of relinquishing and transferring ownership. It is also in this context that children explore, often
with playful delight, how to transgress the norms, and the limits of these
transgressions within their social group. Last but not least, it is also fertile
soil for the development of self-conscious emotions like shame, guilt,
As already mentioned, in order to share, one needs ﬁrst to possess. The
ways we possess and experience possession, and relinquish it to others via
gift, sharing, or any sorts of bartering exchange, is another central theme
of the book that can be summarized as the human psychology of owning and
sharing informed by research in child development.
There are three main parts to the book comprising a total of nine chapters.
In Part I, basic aspects and principles of human possession psychology are
laid out. In a second part, these aspects and principles are reconsidered,
but this time speciﬁcally from the perspective of child development.
Finally, in Part III, possession psychology is considered in relation to
culture and context from both an adult and a child perspective. Below is
a summary of the book as a whole, chapter by chapter. It is meant to
provide an overview of the main ideas. To help the reader, two simple
tables are included, providing a synopsis of the main ontological distinctions made in Part I (Psychology) and the developmental “roadmap”
discussed in Part II (Development).
Origins of Possession
Psychology: principles of human possession
BASIC ONTOLOGICAL DISTINCTIONS
KINDS OF OWNERSHIP
KINDS OF POSSESSION
Strongest (“lion’s share”
and physical strength)
First possession (precedence
Labor (effort and energy
Creation (invention and
Familiarity (history and
Blood (biological relatedness
Luck (haphazard and chance
dynamics), e.g., gambling
dynamics), e.g., hoarding
Chapter 1 (“Experiencing possession”) discusses possession from a phenomenological (experiential) point of view. The goal is to emphasize the
centrality of possession as experienced in our lives, as well as in the mental
life of any other animals that live in groups. Etymologically, possession
means to throw one’s weight over. At a generic level, possession is thus
linked to the forceful experience of gaining control and agency over
things. A strong case is made for the basic claim that, in order to possess,
one must feel and have emotions. Machines cannot possess because they
can only sense but cannot feel. They have no affective lives, nor any
mental states. Feeling is indeed different from sensing. Feeling, including
the feeling experience of possession, refers ontologically to mental states,
and our task as psychologists is to document such states. All social animals
qualify and meet criteria for having feeling experience. It does not require
higher cortical involvement. The chapter goes on to show that we need to
distinguish between implicit (non-conscious, self-contained, or private)
and explicit levels of possession experience. These are ontologically different. At the explicit level, the experience of possession is shared and
publicly articulated, but not at the implicit. In general, I suggest that
the human capacity for feeling experience emerges very early on,
with ﬁrst signs already in the womb, by the middle of gestation. A crucial
aspect of possession as feeling experience is self-evidence: the immediate
Author Philippe Rochat Isbn 9781107032125 File size 1.5MB Year 2014 Pages 336 Language English File format PDF Category Psychology Book Description: FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrDiggMySpaceShare Human possession psychology originates from deeply rooted experiential capacities shared with other animals. However, unlike other animals, we are a uniquely self-conscious species concerned with reputation, and possessions affect our perception of how we exist in the eyes of others. This book discusses the psychology surrounding the ways in which humans experience possession, claim ownership, and share from both a developmental and cross-cultural perspective. Philippe Rochat explores the origins of human possession and its symbolic development across cultures. He proposes that human possession psychology is particularly revealing of human nature, and also the source of our elusive moral sense. Download (1.5MB) Metamorphosis: On the Conflict of Human Development and the Development of Creativity The Infants World Child Development: A Thematic Approach The Shadow of the Tsunami: and the Growth of the Relational Mind The Psychology Book Load more posts