Kids reason that Caged Animals are Owned but Free ones aren’t

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Summary: A new study argues that children reason if an animal is owned or not based on how much control the owner has on the animal’s movement and how much freedom an animal has to escape. They found that children use principles of control and autonomy to assess if a living being is owned or not. Children think animals that are free to move or escape are less owned than those that are fenced or caged.

Can you really own an animal? Pet enthusiasts and legal systems have remarkably different answers. Pet enthusiasts often say their animal is a family member and legal systems declare pets have owners to comply with animal laws. For example, governments fine pet-owners if their pets poop in places the law prohibits. But between pets and hoomans, there rarely is a sense of ownership because we consider dogs, cats, pigs, or sheep as family. The sense of ownership is different from different perspectives. There are strong arguments[1] that say that the law should treat animals as “persons” and not movable properties. Some laws[2] hold an intermediate position stating that animals are properties but they are also living beings gifted with sensitivity.

It’s common to think, “If I can buy it, I can own it.” When it comes to owning a house or a guitar, the level of control you have over the object creates a sense of ownership. But what about things that have an independent mind? Animals aren’t objects, so perhaps they can’t really be owned, even if they are purchased and not adopted or rescued. So what determines if an animal is owned?

Most experiments on ownership have studied objects or ideas. For example[3], 6 to 8-year-old children think objects, along with ideas, thoughts, or songs, can be owned, but common words cannot.

To understand the psychology of animal ownership, researchers Julia Espinosa and Christina Starmans asked and answered an important question in their 2020 paper which is published in Cognition[4] – how do children think about the ownership of living beings? Specifically, how do they reason that an animal is owned or not owned?

Based on 3 experiments done on 5 to 8 year-olds, researchers argue that children reason if an animal is owned or not based on how much control the owner has on the animal’s movement and how much freedom an animal has to escape. They found that children use principles of control and autonomy to assess if a living being is owned or not. Their research is consistent with an earlier study[5] that shows adults think other humans, robots, or biological creatures are less owned if they have autonomy. The study also suggests that people who willingly sell or market themselves are judged to be more ownable. Together, these experiments support the idea that the amount of control one has over others determines how ownable they are. The importance of control and freedom in judging ownership gets more potent as one gets older.

In their first experiment, researchers investigated if watching others exert control over a familiar animal or restricting its freedom would affect if that animal is considered owned or not. They asked 94 children (5 to 8 years old, 49% female) to judge pictures of a man or a woman in their backyard with a familiar but non-domesticated animal standing freely or inside a cage. As expected, children of all age groups judged the free-standing animals to be far less owned than the ones in a cage.

7 to 8-year-old children had important differences in judgment than 5 to 6-year-olds. Although, both age groups associated caging with ownership. The 7 to 8-year-olds had a weaker ownership assessment for both caged as well as free-standing animals. The authors believe that knowledge of an animal’s habits (and human’s too) affects this judgment. This experiment used familiar, non-domesticated animals like a bear, blue jay, deer, fox, rabbit, owl, etc. whose habits are typically known. So they conducted another experiment to reduce the effects of prior knowledge of animal habits.

The second experiment (100 children, 5 to 8 years old, 58% female) was identical to the first one with 2 key differences. Instead of a man or a woman in a backyard, it was a typical green alien in an alien backyard. And instead of familiar animals, the pictures contained novel alien animals in a cage or standing freely. Again, children of all age groups thought the caged animals were far more owned than the free-standing ones.

Both these experiments show that a controlled or restricted animal is more likely to be owned than a free and autonomous animal. According to these experiments, perceived control over animals and the perceived autonomy of movement of that animal is a central theme in making decisions about which animal is owned or not. So typically, a caged bird would appear owned but a freely moving bird on a tree would be much less owned, if not completely free.

Although intuitive, the researchers couldn’t previously rule out the idea that caging an animal could be interpreted as owning instead of the implication of caging – restricting movement. For example, movies and circuses can teach a child that an owned animal lives in a cage. The researchers conducted a third experiment to see if caging was the ownership cue or whether children applied a broader sense of “exerting control” and “restricting movement” to make their judgments.

The third experiment (81 children, 5 to 8 years old, 50% female) was similar to the second one with another key change. Instead of using a cage to restrict movement or exert control, the pictures had an alien backyard with a tall fence. The children were then told about the novel animal’s ability (or inability) to escape from the backyard by jumping over or flying off. In line with the previous 2 experiments, most children thought the animals who could escape are far less owned than the ones who could not. This shows that children do use a general principle – an animal with autonomy, freedom of movement, and the choice to not escape makes it less owned but a person exerting control or restricting its movement makes it more owned.

Researchers observed a general trend across all experiments. As age increased, children were less likely to conclude and had weaker judgments that an animal is owned whether or not it has freedom or is controlled. Learning about animal behavior and real-world experiences may play a role in influencing this judgment.

The researchers argue that 2 additional factors influence the judgment of ownership:

  1. Familiarity with animals – aliens were more owned than familiar animals
  2. The presence of an animal on one’s property – presence suggested ownership

Children have a tendency[6] to believe that an object in their home (or any owned property) belongs to the homeowner. Researchers argue that this territory-based sense of ownership is more of a human intuition than a conditioned thought process because of the law. However, this does not imply that children assume that someone else’s belongings found in their property automatically give them ownership of other’s belongings. In Julia Espinosa and Christina Starman’s first experiment, children adopted different perspectives for different kinds of items. For example, in the warm-up trial photos which had objects instead of animals (frisbee, ball) lying in the backyard, children did not consider them as owned objects when they were told that they were in the backyard accidentally. The children denied that the homeowners could own the frisbee or ball if the object’s history could be something like “It must’ve come from the neighbor’s home.”

This first of a kind study shows how children reason about ownership and future research could assess many factors. For example, a family’s political orientation, attachment style, parenting style, etc. Future studies could monitor if or how judgments of ownership change as one learns more about animal behavior. Researchers could also explore if human-like animals like Chimpanzees (appearance) or Dophins (language) or Octopuses (intelligence) are differently judged than plants or snakes. These studies could help governments establish more considerate laws for animals.

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The mixed-race sample in the study gives the study more merit. The author’s conclusions are likely to generalize across children from various cultures. Another notable feature of the conclusions is that the differences in judgments between owned and free animals were well pronounced. Future studies could expand on their conclusions by changing the history of living things. For example, by creating a narrative – was the animal rescued, adopted, or born to previous pets, etc?. Another interesting question to explore is – does losing something (money, time, respect) to gain an object or living being create a sense of entitlement or ownership?

P.S. Thumbnail Photo by Hilary Halliwell[7] from Pexels[8]

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