By Andrea Luangrath, University of Iowa, Joann Peck, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colleen Kirk, New York Institute of Technology and Suzanne Shu, Cornell University


Maintaining the natural environment is a pressing issue facing our planet. The intentional care of public goods, such as publicly owned parks and waterways, has become increasingly difficult. Yet, it is widely acknowledged that property that is publicly, versus individually, owned, tends to be overused and its care neglected by its users – a phenomenon known in economics as the tragedy of the commons.

The most extreme solution to this problem is to make common property private, so that a single owner is responsible for its care. In our research, we explored if it was possible to instead make people feel as if the property is theirs – a feeling known as psychological ownership – without any change to legal ownership. We thought that a visitor who feels as if they own a public resource might be more likely to engage in stewardship behaviours.

Our research reveals that increasing a user’s psychological ownership does indeed have this impact. Further, this effect occurs for both financial stewardship and behaviours involving voluntary effort, due to a greater sense of responsibility for the public good.

Fostering psychological ownership

One of the routes to form a feeling of ownership is an investment of the self, such as naming or customising an item. We began our work by testing how this might work with public spaces. Our first study was conducted at a public lake in Madison, Wisconsin. Early in the morning, research assistants anchored floating rubbish in the water. Then, we approached individuals who were renting kayaks. Half of the kayak renters were asked to think of their own nickname for the lake, while the other half were not. We observed from shore whether each kayaker attempted to pick up the strategically placed rubbish during their time on the lake. The kayakers who had been asked to think of a nickname for the lake tried to pick up the rubbish 41% of the time, while only 7% of the no-nickname group made the same effort. A simple, low-cost intervention of generating a nickname was enough to increase their psychological ownership for the lake and resulted in more effort to care for it.

Psychological ownership encourages financial stewardship

In another study with cross-country skiers at a state park, we wanted to test a different way to elicit psychological ownership to see if we could increase donations to the park – another form of stewardship. We asked half of the skiers to plan out their route on a park map while the other half just received the map with no instructions. Again, the simple, low-cost act of planning the route (an investment of the self) was enough to increase psychological ownership. Those individuals who had planned a route were 2.5 times more likely to add a US$1.00 financial donation to their rental fees when asked and reported more willingness to volunteer and promote the park on social media.

Diffusion of responsibility

In additional studies, we demonstrated that simply viewing a sign at a park entrance that read Welcome to your park (instead of Welcome to the park) increased psychological ownership of the park. Individuals who saw the your park sign felt more responsibility for the park and said that they would donate 34% more to it (US$32.35 vs. US$24.08).

We wondered whether managers of public goods may be unintentionally discouraging stewardship behaviours. Many parks tout their attendance numbers, but our intuition was that an attendance sign with a large number of people on it might diffuse users’ feelings of responsibility.

We showed half of our participants an attendance sign (This week, you are visitor #22,452). Many US parks have over a million visitors annually, so we designed an attendance sign that included an appropriately large number. Participants were given money for taking part in the research, but also had the option to use some of that money for an anonymous donation to the park.

As in our prior studies, we found that individuals who felt more ownership of the park also donated more. They were also more likely to say that they would steward the park, including picking up rubbish and volunteering to help the park. However, these effects were reduced when participants saw the attendance sign. Seemingly small actions like this can undermine those feelings of responsibility and decrease stewardship behaviours.

Our research has implications for consumers, organisations caring for public resources, policy makers, and for-profit companies, by demonstrating that simple, low-cost interventions based on increasing psychological ownership can enhance stewardship of public goods.

It is common to use techniques to enhance consumers’ psychological ownership and stewardship behaviours for public resources. Many municipalities in the US invite consumers and businesses to adopt a highway, and wildlife refuges issue certificates to donors who choose animals for their personal protection. The National Park Service live streams salmon-feasting bears at Katmai National Park in Alaska, inviting viewers to vote on their favourite hefty bear.

Examples abound of non-owners who make the effort to care for shared resources, whose behaviour seems to imply a high psychological ownership for those items. For example, large numbers of dedicated football fans willingly volunteer to clear snow from their favourite team’s stadium for minimal pay and thousands of individuals build and maintain Little Free Libraries in their communities.

Our research offers some evidence that the psychology of ownership may underlie such generous behaviours. The actionable interventions we designed and tested to increase psychological ownership are inexpensive, novel, and flexible solutions that successfully motivate individual stewardship behaviours.

By fostering visitors’ individual feelings of ownership of a public resource, visitors will feel more responsible for it, take better care of it, and donate more time and money for its benefit. We hope that public goods managers will leverage these interventions to motivate and nudge people to care for our common resources.




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