The human species is shaped and controlled by our desire to own things, this colourful study argues
There is no shortage of analysis and critique of consumerism, from Karl Marx on “commodity fetishism” and Thorstein Veblen on “conspicuous consumption” to James Walton’s Stuffocation (2015) and Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things (2016). The developmental psychologist Bruce Hood, however, promises that Possessed “is the first book to explore how the psychology of ownership has shaped our species and continues to control us today”. This is a venial sin of advertising, but then the consumer book trade is competitive.
Hood’s story is a colourful and interesting journey nonetheless. Animals can recognise possession of food or territory, he points out, and bats and monkeys keep track of fairness – but only humans own things. The book proceeds through layers of cultural history, political analysis (Hood attempts suggestively to relate Trump and Brexit to issues of ownership), and regrettably simplistic evolutionary psychology; its scientific core is the experiments Hood has performed on children. Like John Locke, it transpires, toddlers assume that someone owns something if they have made it themselves from the raw materials. And Hood cleverly elicited an “endowment effect” from pre-schoolers, showing that they, like adults, value something more than an identical alternative just because it belongs to them.