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How We Handle Objects Depends on Who Owns Them

How We Handle Objects Depends on Who Owns Them

Without thinking much about it, we pass objects to other people every day, whether it’s car keys, a sandwich, or scissors. And although we often try to make it easier for the other person to grab the object — such as turning a handle toward him or her — a new study shows that we are a bit less accommodating when handing over our own belongings.

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

“The associations or attachments that we have with an object leak into our movements in unintended ways when we interact with them,” said psychology researcher and lead study author Merryn Constable, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto.

“The act of facilitating another person’s action is somewhat inhibited when the object that we’re passing is something that we own, but the effects are so subtle that they are likely to go unnoticed.”

Constable and a research team, including Dr. Andrew Bayliss at the University of East Anglia (UEA) School of Psychology, wanted to investigate whether specific social factors, such as ownership, might influence this behavior. In other words, are we potentially more or less helpful when passing our own mug compared to passing someone else’s?

The researchers conducted two experiments in which they observed passing behavior among 42 pairs of friends. A few weeks before the actual experiment, each participant was given a mug to keep; the mugs varied only in their background color.

The participants were told to use their mug every day, at home or at work, and to make sure that no one else used it. These instructions were given to ensure that the participants felt a strong degree of ownership over the mug.

During the experiment, the friends sat across from each other at a table and the experimenter placed a mug in a specific location on the table. The researcher asked one of the participants, designated the “passer,” to pick up the mug and place it in front of his or her friend. In some cases, the friend receiving the mug was told to pick it up by the handle; in other cases, the friend was instructed to remain still.

The person doing the passing, as well as the mug being passed, both varied randomly from trial to trial. The researchers tracked the location of each participant’s hand and the location of the mug using a motion-capture system.

In line with prior research, participants passed the mug slightly differently depending on whether the friend was going to pick it up afterward. For example, passers turned the mug handle closer to the friend’s hand when they expected him or her to grab it.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that passers rotated the handle slightly less when handing over their own mug compared to when they were passing someone else’s mug. The findings from these two studies indicate that passers seemed to help less when passing their own mug to their friend rather than helping more when passing the friend’s own mug.

“We were expecting that the effect would be related to helping more if the object that is being passed is owned by the receiver,” Constable said. “It’s possible the prosocial behavior demonstrated by this group of participants was influenced by their self-interest concerning possessions.”

Overall, the two experiments underscore the importance of paying attention to the social context of our physical interactions.

“These findings reveals how the subtleties of our social world can play out in how we interact physically with objects and people,” said Constable.

Source: University of East Anglia


How We Handle Objects Depends on Who Owns Them

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). How We Handle Objects Depends on Who Owns Them. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 1 Oct 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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