The Mere Ownership Effect: How People Value Things

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

People value things in relation to themselves, and once they own something, it gets closely related. This is a result of the mere ownership effect, which makes people like their house, their mug, and even their initials more than equal entities. Somehow, they see the mug that they pick from among 100 similar mugs, better than the other 99, right after they have chosen it.

Picture shows a businessman holding a virtual plus sign.
The mere ownership effect is a result of the psychological fact that people overvalue things that are associated with them. (Image: Monster Ztudio/Shutterstock)

People usually think they are better than the average person: better drivers, better students, better employees, better friends, etc. However, the reality is that, statistically, only 50% of the people can be above average, and the rest must be equal or below.

Studies show that more than 50% of people believe they are better than average, and many think that whatever belongs to them is better than other things, merely because it belongs to them. This is called the mere ownership effect. But why do people value things that belong to them more than other things? Because they value themselves more than other people.

Learn more about why we forget.

Self-Evaluation on Positive Characteristics

Several studies have asked their participants to rate themselves on different traits, compared to the average. And in all those studies, most of the participants believed they were more intelligent, dependable, considerate, and truthful than other people. One of the studies asked people to rate themselves on 40 traits. On average, the participants rated themselves better than the average in 38 characteristics!

Picture shows balance scales on a wooden background.
Most people believe they are higher than average in positive characteristics, while only 50% are really higher. (Image: vetre/Shutterstock)

The reality is that psychological characteristics obey a normal bell-shaped distribution, where half of the people are above, and half are below the average. Another study in Australia showed that 86% of employees believed they were better than average, and only 1% thought they were below average. Here again, there is the 50–50 distribution in reality.

Of course, some of those people who believe they are better than average, are really better than average, but many are not. Yet, most of them evaluate themselves as better than average. The same views and overestimated self-evaluation apply to everything associated with a person.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Mere Ownership Effect

People think their friends, schools, kids, personal values, and even things as small as keyholders are better than others. The mere ownership effect is a result of valuing things associated with oneself higher. People value things that belong to them more than something that they do not own.

A girl in warm sweater is holding a white mug in her hands.
A person tends to like a product more after they own it, compared to before they owned it. (Image: MaddyZ/Shutterstock)

It is logical to value things that have been earned or bought, but people also value things that are accidentally gained or given to them as presents. For example, suppose four different products are shown to a person, and they are asked to rate them based on how much they like them. The products can be anything, for instance, a stapler, a coffee mug, a key chain, and an address book. Now suppose one of those things is randomly selected and given to the person.

Numerous psychological studies have carried out the above experiment and asked the participants to rate the products again after one has been given to them as a gift. Interestingly, most of the participants liked the product that they now owned, better than the others, and more than before. Another example is the name initials.

Learn more about why we care what others think of us.

Importance of Initials and Names

Another interesting realization of the mere ownership effect and overrating things associated with oneself is the letters in people’s names. When researchers ask people to rate how much they like the letters of the alphabet, they tend to rate their own initials higher than other letters. The study has been conducted many times in 14 different countries, and the results all showed the same things: people like their initials and their names a lot.

One result is that people value things that have their initials more. For example, people prefer brand names of products that start with their own initials. Some studies even showed people prefer buying stocks from companies whose names have the same initials as theirs.

A study conducted at the State University of New York showed that people like to live in cities that resemble their own names. The statistical analyses show that there are proportionally too many women named Virginia in Virginia, and too many men named George in Georgia. Researchers also studied 35 American cities that start with the word ‘saint’. The results show that the number of people named after the saint is higher in that city. For example, there are too many Pauls in St. Paul.

In fact, 44% more women and 14% more men live in cities that are named for saints that share their own names. Many of these people had moved to these cities, not been born there.

Conclusively, people tend to value things that are somehow related to them more than things that are not, solely because those things are related to them.

Common Questions about the Mere Ownership Effect

Q: What is the mere ownership effect?

In simple terms, the mere ownership effect is what makes people view things that belong to them better than they really are. People overvalue things that they own.

Q: Are name initials important to people?

One weird realization of the mere ownership effect is how people tend to prefer things whose names start with their initials or names. For example, there are proportionally too many people called Paul living in St. Paul.

Q: Is it common to overestimate one’s abilities?

Yes. People tend to view themselves and things related to them better than they really are. The mere ownership effect shows how people overvalue things simply because they own those things.

Q: Is it common for people to like their own stuff more than others?

Yes. It is a very natural human behavior for someone to prefer themselves and things related to them. Due to the mere ownership effect, everyone tends to overvalue things that belong to them, merely because they belong to them.

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