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Emotion

2015, Vol. 15, No. 1, 104 –108

© 2014 American Psychological Association
1528-3542/15/$12.00 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000027

Preschoolers and Toddlers Use Ownership to Predict Basic Emotions
Madison L. Pesowski and Ori Friedman

This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

University of Waterloo
People’s emotions often depend on ownership. We report 3 experiments showing that preschoolers and
toddlers consider ownership in predicting basic emotions. In Experiment 1, 3-year-olds were sensitive to
ownership when predicting how a character would feel when objects went missing. Experiment 2 found
that 3- to 5-year-olds consider ownership when predicting emotional reactions to harmless violations of
ownership rights, and Experiment 3 showed 2-year-olds also do this. For instance, preschoolers and
toddlers predicted a girl would be upset when a boy played with her teddy bear without permission, but
not when he played with his own. These findings show that preschoolers and toddlers understand basic
causal relations between ownership and emotions, and are also the first to show that 2-year-olds are
sensitive to other people’s ownership rights.
Keywords: ownership, basic emotions, children, predicting emotions, causal knowledge

Harris, Olthof, Terwogt, & Hardman, 1987; Russell & Widen,
2002; Strayer, 1986; Widen & Russell, 2004; see also Fabes,
Eisenberg, Nyman, & Michealieu, 1991), and their explanations of
happiness, sadness, and anger sometimes reference ownership
(Fabes et al., 1991; Strayer, 1986; Russell & Widen, 2002; Widen
& Russell, 2004). For example, when asked to explain others’
emotions, children explain that a child is angry because a girl took
his toy, or that a child is happy because she received a new bike
(Fabes et al., 1991; Strayer, 1986). However, studies in which
children provided such explanations did not code for ownership,
and do not report the frequency with which these explanations are
given. Hence, it is unclear whether children typically consider
ownership in their causal reasoning about emotions, or whether
this is rare.
The possibility that young children grasp the impact of ownership
on emotions is also broadly consistent with findings showing that they
are adept in reasoning about ownership (e.g., Blake, Ganea, & Harris,
2012; Friedman & Neary, 2008; Gelman, Manczak, & Noles, 2012;
Kanngiesser, Gjersoe, & Hood, 2010; see Nancekivell, Van de
Vondervoort, & Friedman, 2013, for a review). Preschoolers understand that ownership determines the acceptability of behaviors (e.g.,
Neary & Friedman, 2014; Rossano, Rakoczy, & Tomasello, 2011;
Schmidt, Rakoczy, & Tomasello, 2013), and so they might appreciate
its emotional consequences, too.

Emotions often depend on ownership. People are upset when their
property is damaged or used without permission, and are elated when
their lost belongings are found. Knowing how ownership influences
emotions is important because it allows us to predict and understand
emotional reactions in many situations. For example, it allows us to
anticipate that although many people might be upset if a car is stolen,
the owner is likely to be especially upset about it.
Even young children might grasp the impact of ownership on
emotions. Two kinds of findings are broadly consistent with this,
but neither provides decisive evidence. First, preschool-aged children can predict when certain events will cause happiness, sadness,
and anger (Arsenio, 1988; Barden, Zelko, Duncan, & Masters,
1980; Borke, 1971, 1973; Brody & Harrison, 1987; Stein &
Levine, 1989; for reviews see Harris, 2008, and Widen & Russell,
2008), and these events often involve owned property (Arsenio,
1988; Borke, 1971). For example, studies show that children can
predict how a story character will feel when her toy is stolen
(Arsenio, 1988) and how they themselves would feel if their
cookie was taken by someone else (Brody & Harrison, 1987).
Information about ownership may have influenced children’s predictions in these studies. However, this is uncertain because ownership was not manipulated, and so perhaps children would respond identically even without information about ownership. For
example, children might predict that a character will feel sad when
a toy breaks, even if they are not told it belongs to her.
Second, 3- and 4-year-olds are able to generate explanations for
why people feel a variety of emotions (Denham & Zoller, 1991;

Theories of Children’s Causal Knowledge of Emotions
Although some findings suggest that young children may appreciate the influence of ownership on emotions, ownership has
not figured in theories of how young children understand the
causes of emotions. One way children understand the causes of
emotions is by learning scripts about the kinds of external events
that typically lead to various emotions (Gove & Keating, 1979;
Hughes, Tingle, & Sawin, 1981; Widen & Russell, 2010, 2011; see
Chiarella & Poulin-Dubois, 2013, for related findings with infants). Consistent with this, 3-year-olds predict that happiness
follows from positive events (e.g., receiving a favorite snack) and
that sadness follows from negative events (e.g., not being allowed
to play; Borke, 1971). Another way children reason about the

This article was published Online First October 6, 2014.
Madison L. Pesowski and Ori Friedman, Department of Psychology,
University of Waterloo.
Research was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada awarded to Ori Friedman.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ori
Friedman, Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, 200 University Avenue W, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G1. E-mail:
friedman@uwaterloo.ca
104

78). The next experiments examine whether preschoolers and toddlers anticipate emotional reactions to harmless violations of ownership rights. scores were lower than expected by chance (M score ⫽ ⫺0. Forty 3-year-olds participated (M ⫽ 3. in the fixed order “happy. 38) ⫽ 0.001. t(39) ⫽ 3. they may have been reluctant to use it (only 7 of the 40 children ever chose this option). text varying between conditions appears in brackets: Look here is a girl and she is at the park. Results Children mostly responded using the scale. 95% CI [0.. but twice returned to the park bench.58. children were recruited from and tested at preschools and day care centers.83.. and responded using the emotion scale. months]. which also had someone else’s teddy bear on it. and no Trial Type ⫻ Trial Order interaction. Consistent with this. One additional child was excluded from analysis for failing to successfully complete a training task.and 3-year-olds predict that people will feel happy if their desires are fulfilled. and one for their response when the other bear was missing. It belongs to her.g. d ⫽ 0. SD ⫽ .34. see also Skerry & Spelke. the experimenter began the scenario anew. Materials and procedure. How does the girl feel? Now the girl goes to play on the swings and she comes back. 95% CI [0. Follow-up analyses examined whether scores in each trial departed from the chance score of 0. Each time.. p ⫽ . Experiment 1. How does the girl feel? And look. Experiment 1 Method Participants. And look! The [other/girl’s] bear is gone! But the [girl’s/other] bear is there.g. “This face is happy”). girl’s bear or other bear missing) as a within-subjects factor and trial order (i.” “okay”).15. p ⬍ . p ⫽ .18].001. F(1. And look! There is another teddy bear on the bench. 2014. a happy face. participants were predominantly White and from middle-class families. 38) ⫽ 1. pictures used to narrate scenarios).” “sad. the other bear was missing first. children indicated that the girl was sadder when her bear was missing than when the other bear was missing. “I don’t know.73]. For half the participants.473. Which one is the girl’s bear? Now the girl goes to play on the slide. but as sad in the reverse scenario. 1990.23.g.11. In addition.92. The girl placed her teddy bear on a bench. SD ⫽ . Children were next told a story about a girl at a park with her teddy bear. There was no effect of trial-order. “Which one is sad?”). F(1. Emotion scale used in the training task. Both times the girl saw one bear present and one missing. Scores were entered into a 2 ⫻ 2 ANOVA with the trial type (i. the girl has her bear and she is going home.g. ⫺. 2.62. but will feel sad if their desires instead go unfulfilled (Wellman & Bartsch.174. Each child received two scores— one for their response in the trial in which the girl’s bear was missing. F(1.038. When the girl’s bear was missing (and the other bear present).29. Finding that children also consider ownership in predicting emotions would extend understanding of how they predict emotions and understand their causes.53. When the other bear was missing (and the girl’s bear present).. To be included in the experiment..22. including their goals. as were all materials in the current the experiments (e. And look this is her teddy bear. scores were greater than expected by chance (M score ⫽ 0. For both children.. children may have based the prediction on the girl’s relief that her own teddy bear was present. and all other responses (e.e. one bear was present and the other bear was missing. This teddy bear belongs to someone else. were scored 0. and both children then passed this question. She comes back and look! The [girl’s/other] bear is gone! But the [other/girl’s] bear is there. range ⫽ 3. p ⫽ . t(39) ⫽ ⫺2. and a “just okay” face that was emotionally neutral (see Figure 1). and the girl’s bear was missing 105 second).02]. children were asked how the girl felt.30. and beliefs. 1.e. Discussion Figure 1. She wants to go and play so she puts her teddy bear on the bench. If many children limited themselves to only the happy and . this order was reversed (i. rather than reflecting an expectation that the girl enjoyed someone else’s misfortune. although children were offered a neutral response option.48. ␩p2 ⫽ .. It is somewhat surprising that children predicted the girl would be happy when the bear belonging to another person was missing.This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers. Children first completed a training task to familiarize them with an emotion scale. Children identified the girl as happy when the other bear was missing and her bear was present. p ⬍ . The emotion scale depicted drawings of three faces: a sad face. The experimenter pointed at each face and stated its emotion (e. desires. 95% CI [⫺.5 [years. the girl’s bear was missing first and the other bear was missing second. 21 females). This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly. Although further demographic information was not formally collected. This analysis found a main effect of trial-type. 38) ⫽ 15. Here is the full script. Wellman & Woolley. In this experiment and those subsequent. whether the girl’s bear was missing first or second) as a between-subjects factor. This was shown on a laptop computer.37. Two children initially responded incorrectly to the comprehension question asking which bear belonged to the girl. for related findings with infants). children had to pass all three questions. 1988.” and “just okay. neutral responses. d ⫽ 0.” Children were then asked to identify the face for each emotional state (e. for the other participants.e. A first experiment examines whether 3-year-olds judge that individuals’ emotions are influenced more when their own property is lost and found than when these events occur for others’ property. Responses that the girl was happy were scored 1 and sad responses were scored ⫺1. 0. OWNERSHIP AND EMOTIONS causes of emotions is by considering people’s mental states (“theory of mind”). The present experiments examine young children’s understanding of the causal impact of ownership on emotions.0 to 3. However.88). but occasionally children responded verbally. The girl then went off to play.

the experimenter corrected the child and continued with the task. It belongs to him. the characters each had their own object (teddy bears in Story 1. One additional 3-year-old was tested but was excluded from analysis because of noncompliance. F(2. p ⬍ . It belongs to her. Results Children received a score of 1 each time they predicted the nonuser would feel “sad” or “mad”.49. . range ⫽ 2.7. Materials and procedure. children had to indicate the appropriate faces. One character left the room (girl in Story 1. This analysis yielded a main effect of condition.” “not happy”). the next experiment included children from a broader range of ages. 17 females). and no Age ⫻ Condition interaction. including predictions that the character would feel happy. ␩p2 ⫽ . The experimenter pointed at each face and stated its emotion.0 to 2.0 to 3. Then they were asked to predict how the character who left the room would feel upon seeing the other character using the object. In both stories. here is a girl and here is another teddy bear..001. Discussion Preschoolers judged that characters would feel more negatively when their ownership rights were violated (i. This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly. range ⫽ 5. this score was also given for equivalent emotion predictions (e. Mean times children predicted a negative emotional response. balls in Story 2).64. Children were scored 0 for Figure 2. F(2.e. mean scores are shown in Figure 2. To examine this. The next experiments.11. This one is the girl’s bear. Children saw stories in which the object belonged either to the character playing with it (user-owns condition) or to the character who left the room (nonuser-owns condition).PESOWSKI AND FRIEDMAN 106 This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers. Materials and procedure.g. When this happened. children were asked a comprehension question confirming that they knew which character owned the object being used. and for responses not referring to predicted emotions (e.g.0 to 5. 1.. Children first completed a training task to familiarize them with an emotion scale.114. Three additional children were seen but were not tested because they failed the training task. in at least one story. there was no indication that the property would be damaged or permanently taken). the boy is playing with [her/his] bear. 4. And look it’s green just like the boy’s shirt. Regardless. nonuser-owns) ⫻ 3 (age: 3. the girl goes outside for a minute. It was a simplified version of the scale used in Experiment 1.61]. then they might have viewed the happy option as the better fit when the girl’s bear was present. Experiment 3 Method Participants. with children receiving higher scores in the nonuser-owns than the user-owns condition.6. Children’s scores could range between 0 and 2.02. Children were told two stories about a boy and a girl. “bad. After each scenario. boy in Story 2) and the other character then played with one of the two objects. 28 4-year-olds (M ⫽ 4.11. p ⫽ . 82) ⫽ 78. p ⫽ .g.23. F(1. Of chief interest was whether children would be more likely to judge that characters would be sad or mad when their ownership rights were violated (nonuser-owns condition) than when this did not happen (userowns condition). And look. It is striking that preschoolers responded this way because the ownership violations were essentially harmless (e. 19 females). sad options. Because we anticipated that younger children might have difficulty grasping emotional reactions for harmless violations. and 28 5-year-olds (M ⫽ 5.0 to 4. Experiment 2 Method Participants.11.11. Eighty-eight children participated: 32 3-yearolds (M ⫽ 3.384. This is the boy’s bear. Children were then asked to identify the face for both emotional states. And look. Now. range ⫽ 4. here is a boy and here is a teddy bear. text varying between conditions appears in brackets: Look.7. scores were entered into a 2 (condition: user-owns. The girl is going to come back and I have some questions: Whose bear is the boy playing with? How will the girl feel when she sees the boy playing with [her/his] bear? all other answers. They examine whether children predict that harmless violations of ownership rights also lead to negative emotions.to 5-year-olds’ strong performance. To be included in the experiment. Here is a sample script. these findings demonstrate that 3-year-olds consider ownership when predicting emotional reactions for overtly negative outcomes involving the potential loss of property. There was no effect of age. the experimenter began the scenario anew. 5 years old) ANOVA. it’s purple just like the girl’s shirt. 15 females). examine whether children can predict emotions for more subtle negative events involving owned property. a final experiment investigated whether 2-year-olds also appreciate the emotional consequences of such ownership violations. always starting with the happy face. 95% CI [1. Given 3.. Seven of these children (four 3-year-olds and three 4-year-olds) also failed a second time. range ⫽ 3. showing only the sad and happy faces from that scale. These conditions varied in whether the character in the room violated the ownership rights of the person who left.682.. 82) ⫽ 0. however. 82) ⫽ 2. Thirty-two 2-year-olds participated (M ⫽ 2. another person used their property without obtaining permission) than when this did not happen. Fourteen children (nine 3-year-olds and five 4-year-olds) gave incorrect responses to the comprehension question in at least one story. 10 females). Experiment 2. and each time this happened. “I don’t know”).5. And look.

and each time this happened. Perhaps their understanding of other people’s ownership rights depends on their ability to predict the emotional consequences of violating these rights. and depending on the condition to which children were randomly assigned. SD ⫽ .. 1991.76. 1986). 2011). and extend understanding of how young children predict emotions and understand their causes. the boy is playing with the [girl’s/his] bear. Our findings only suggest that children consider ownership in predicting happiness and sadness. Instead. By directly manipulating ownership. p ⫽ . For example. existing theories . The first experiment found that 3-year-olds were sensitive to ownership when predicting how a character would feel when an object went missing. Of course.040. studies on ownership rights only found that 2-year-olds are aware of their own ownership rights (e. t(30) ⫽ 2. scores were higher in the nonuser-owns condition (M ⫽ 1. the findings reveal that 2-year-olds understand the causes of emotions and suggest that they are aware of other people’s ownership rights. It belongs to [her/him]. they show that preschoolers and toddlers appreciate how ownership influences emotions. Mean times 2-year-olds predicted a negative emotional response. 1988. and also Figure 3. children were shown the emotion scale and were asked how the other character (who did not play with the object) felt. As shown in Figure 3. happiness vs. the findings highlight the importance of ownership for emotions. 2014. anger) and between different positively valenced emotions (e.OWNERSHIP AND EMOTIONS This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers. Here is a sample script. Few previous studies show that 2-year-olds can predict emotions (Wellman & Woolley. The children appreciated that an owner would be more saddened by the disappearance of an object belonging to her compared with the disappearance of someone else’s property. they predicted that a girl would be more upset when a boy used her property (without permission) compared with when he used his own property..31. Here is a girl.g. the experimenter began the scenario anew. When this happened. This finding is striking because the violation of ownership rights was harmless and did not involve an overtly negative outcome—there was no reason to expect that the girl would be deprived of her property or that the boy would damage it. Children were next told two stories about a boy and a girl. This shows that 2-year-olds consider ownership when predicting how people will react to uses of objects. and no previous studies found that 2-year-olds are sensitive to other people’s ownership rights. One character (boy in Story 1. and continued with the task. with understanding of other’s rights only appearing in children aged 3 years and older (e. this score was also assigned for a child who said “mad” instead of responding using the scale. Discussion Children predicted that nonusers would feel more negatively when the object belonged to them compared with when it belonged to the user. SD ⫽ . First.g. The second and third experiments found that preschoolers and toddlers also consider ownership when predicting emotional reactions to more harmless events. Although some previous studies showed that children predict emotions when considering situations involving owned property (e. Brody & Harrison. Likewise some studies also found that children referred to ownership when explaining emotions (Fabes et al.. text varying between conditions appears in brackets: Here is a boy. How will the girl feel about that? Six of the 2-year-olds gave incorrect responses to the comprehension question in at least one story.. 2011). girl in Story 2) played with the object. pride)..79) than in the user-owns condition (M ⫽ 0. ball in Story 2). And here is a teddy bear.15. moreover. The finding that toddlers see relations between ownership and emotions may be informative about the origins of their appreciation of ownership. Rossano et al. Four of these children failed a second time in at least one story. none of these studies actually manipulated ownership and therefore do not show that children are sensitive to it. Neary & Friedman. Children were scored 0 for all other answers including predictions that the character would be happy and for nonresponses (maximum score ⫽ 2). General Discussion In three experiments. Second.g. In each story. Results Children received a score of 1 each time they predicted the nonuser would be sad. children might instead have reasoned about whether events are likely to result in positively valenced versus negatively valenced feelings. the present findings only represent a first step. sadness vs. These findings are informative in three regards. Third.75.. Arsenio. 1990). 107 recognize that people may feel negatively when others harmlessly use their property. As noted. 1.. Strayer.g. Experiment 3. Whose teddy bear is it? Look. we found that preschoolers and toddlers understand basic causal relations between ownership and emotions. the object either belonged to this character (user-owns condition) or to the other character (nonuser-owns condition). rather than considering these emotions per se. future research could examine whether children consider ownership in distinguishing between different negatively valenced emotions (e.68). Hence. Rossano et al. but they did not report how often children provided such explanations.03. 95% CI [0. After each scenario.10]. 1987). the characters stood side by side with an object between them (teddy bear in Story 1. d ⫽ 0. This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly. It’s the [girl’s/boy’s] bear. the experimenter corrected the child. the present studies reveal that children consider it when predicting how others will feel.g..

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