Media Releases

Yours or Mine? How We Handle Objects Depends on Who Owns Them

September 27, 2016

Toron­to, ON – From scis­sors and sta­plers to car keys and cell phones, we pass objects to oth­er peo­ple every day. We often try to pass the objects so that the han­dle or oth­er use­ful fea­ture is fac­ing the appro­pri­ate direc­tion for the per­son receiv­ing the item, but new research shows that we’re less accom­mo­dat­ing when it comes to hand­ing over our own belong­ings. The find­ings are pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, a jour­nal of the Asso­ci­a­tion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

“The asso­ci­a­tions or attach­ments that we have with an object leak into our move­ments in unin­tend­ed ways when we inter­act with them,” says psy­chol­o­gy researcher and study author Mer­ryn Con­sta­ble 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.”

Indeed, pick­ing up objects is such a rou­tine part of every­day life that we don’t often think about how we do it, but research shows that our actions often con­tain a proso­cial ele­ment. When we pick up a mug, for exam­ple, we typ­i­cal­ly pick it up by the han­dle because that is most com­fort­able. But when we hand the mug to some­one else, we might turn it so that the han­dle faces the per­son receiv­ing it.

Con­sta­ble and col­leagues want­ed to find out whether spe­cif­ic social fac­tors, such as own­er­ship, might influ­ence this behav­ior – that is, are we just as help­ful when pass­ing our own mug as we are when pass­ing some­one else’s?

In two exper­i­ments, the researchers exam­ined pass­ing behav­ior among 42 pairs of friends. A week or two before the actu­al exper­i­ment, each par­tic­i­pant received 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 only they used it. This instruc­tion was giv­en to ensure that the par­tic­i­pants would feel own­er­ship over the mug.

For 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. One par­tic­i­pant, des­ig­nat­ed the “pass­er,” was told to pick up the mug and place it in front of his or her friend in a nat­ur­al man­ner. 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 and the mug that was 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 pre­vi­ous research, peo­ple passed the mug slight­ly dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on whether the friend was going to pick it up after­ward – that is, passers rotat­ed the han­dle clos­er to the friend’s hand when they expect­ed him or her to grasp the mug.

Inter­est­ing­ly, the researchers found that passers rotat­ed the han­dle slight­ly less when hand­ing over their own mug com­pared to when they hand­ed over some­one else’s mug. This less help­ful behav­ior occurred both when they passed their friend’s mug and when they passed a mug belong­ing to the researcher, a rel­a­tive stranger.

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, which sur­prised the researchers:

“We were expect­ing that the effect would be relat­ed to help­ing more if the object that is being passed is owned by the receiv­er,” says Con­sta­ble. “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,” Con­sta­ble con­cludes.


Co-authors on the research include Andrew P. Bayliss (Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia), Steven P. Tip­per (Uni­ver­si­ty of York), Ana P. Span­iol (Uni­ver­si­dade Fed­er­al do Rio Grande do Norte), and Jay Pratt and Tim­o­thy N. Welsh (both of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to).

This research was sup­port­ed by the Ontario Min­istry of Research and Inno­va­tion and by Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Research Coun­cil of Cana­da Grants 2015–06482 (to T. N. Welsh) and 194537 (to J. Pratt).

For more infor­ma­tion about this study, please con­tact: Mer­ryn Con­sta­ble at

For more infor­ma­tion:

Anna Miku­lak
Asso­ci­a­tion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence

Katie Bab­cock
Fac­ul­ty of Kine­si­ol­o­gy and Phys­i­cal Edu­ca­tion