Assistant professor of marketing, Andrea Luangrath, was recently recognized for her work on the study, “Caring for the Commons: Using Psychological Ownership to Enhance Stewardship Behavior for Public Goods,” which was published in the Journal of Marketing on September 25, 2020. With a goal of understanding how to motivate people to care for public goods, Andrea described performing a series of “really fun” studies to try and instill a sense of ownership in users of public resources.
To learn more about the research topic that Andrea later claimed, “resonates nicely with people,” I hopped on Zoom to chat with the co-author herself. In the interview below, Andrea discusses her latest research publication including the motivation behind studying psychological ownership, using the findings for various marketing applications, and the importance of research related to social and environmental welfare.
First, could you tell me a little about the concept of psychological ownership? How did you become interested in the topic?
The concept of psychological ownership is one of my areas of research, so it’s an exciting topic to me. The idea for psychological ownership really originated in management. It was born out of this idea that it’s actually better if employees can feel ownership of their job and what they’re doing workwise. In those cases when they actually do feel ownership, it leads to really positive outcomes, like job satisfaction.
One thing that’s important about psychological ownership is this feeling that something is “mine”; feeling like you personally have ownership, even if you don’t. Even in the absence of legal ownership, you can still feel like something is yours. You might not legally be an owner of a company, but you might feel like you have ownership of the company because you’re an employee of it. This feeling of ownership is really important.
In this [research], we were interested in trying to find psychological mechanisms to get people to care for public resources. The general idea is if you can get someone to feel ownership of a public good, like a public park or a public lake, then people will be more likely to care for that good.
In general, I’m interested in why consumers do what they do. Broadly, I’m interested in human behavior. More specifically, I’m interested in consumer behavior and how people make decisions around the consumption that happens in their lives. To me, it was intriguing that we don’t necessarily need to be actual owners of something to be able to have consequences, as if we were actual owners.
It’s intriguing that a lot of the psychological processes that happen behind the scenes can actually influence consumers’ decisions, purchases, and ultimately, their lives. Very broadly, I’m interested in those psychological forces, and I’m interested in those psychological forces because they’re independent of other types of forces.
With this project you can think of a lot of ways that we can nudge or change behavior. But if we can nudge and change behavior with simple psychological routes, that’s actually very effective because you don’t need to enact social norms or levy fees for bad behavior. There are lots of other mechanisms to get people to behave in a way that you want them to behave. If you can simply try to have subtle manipulations to get people to care more or invest themselves in something, then we can nudge behavior in a very positive way.
What drew you to start researching the effect of psychological ownership on public goods? Specifically, why public goods?
This is such an important topic right now. You look at a lot of different factors that make this so important – dwindling public resources, climate change, a lot of issues around sustainability and environmental concerns – and there are a lot of questions about, “how do we get people to take care of the environment and to take care of resources that they do not own?”
In this context it’s a fundamentally important question, right? I think starting from that point [of a fundamentally important question] is often a good starting point with research. We attempt to do things that are relevant to people and that have really positive consequences. From a societal benefit perspective, this is an important question. That was really the motivation for setting out to do this research, especially in a public goods domain.
A lot of the theories that we know about ownership can apply to products – apply to products we own, apply to searching for products and our purchase decisions – in a very consumer-oriented context. They can also apply very broadly to things like this, citizenship kinds of questions, and globally, environmental questions too.
Typically, when thinking about marketing, my initial thoughts relate to the purchase of goods and services. How do you draw the connection between your research and other areas of marketing?
Within marketing, it’s a very broad field. A lot of the research being done in marketing [is] a wave of research called Transformative Consumer Research (TCR). There’s a whole bunch of people that are doing work [in the area of TCR] with the aims of bettering society. The whole idea is to study problems, to ask questions, to find interventions, and to conduct a lot of research around topics that are important to social welfare and for bettering our world. That really is one of the primary drivers of a lot of the research that happens in marketing.
Often times peoples’ traditional notions of what marketing research should constitute, or what it does constitute, or the domains in which the theories apply would be a fairly narrow perspective. The reality is that a lot of the work that’s being done is being done from a consumer welfare perspective and a societal welfare perspective. So, I don’t really see [my research] as incongruent, I actually see it as part of what is now a lot of the mainstream work being done in the field.
What implications do you think your findings will have in other areas of research or marketing applications?
One of main goals of this work – aside from studying a topic that was relevant for social welfare perspectives – was to create specific, actionable insights for managers. If you’re a manager of a public good, hopefully, from this research, you will be able to find interventions that are very simple. [The findings] are actionable interventions that anyone could implement to see potential positive effects.
In terms of applications, there’s very direct application to what people could actually do. People could pick up [our research] paper and look at all the things we’ve tested, in terms of ways that you could manipulate and nudge behavior, to positively influence the likelihood that someone will care for that public good. Application-wise, it has very direct relevance to what managers could and should do for encouraging behavior.
Where do you see this area of research moving in the next few years? Specifically, where do you see yourself pushing the area of research on psychological ownership into next?
I have a number of different projects that study psychological ownership in different ways. I have some work right now that’s looking at psychological ownership in more of a product sense, but in virtual domains. I think there’s a lot of potential for exploring how we essentially feel ownership of digital goods, of goods even when they’re mediated by technology.
The same can be considered in the context of public goods too. We often experience public spaces digitally before we even visit them. We might look at what a beach looks like, you might take a 360-degree tour of different monuments. We’re doing these things all the time, so I think there’s a lot of opportunity for exploring the effects of ownership in a more digital environment.
With social distancing still in effect and other areas of life continuing to be impacted by COVID-19, could you speak to the importance of your findings regarding the changes we’ve seen in everyday life?
We know that in the pandemic a lot of people have turned to activities that are feasible for them. People have turned to outdoor activities. As a result, our national, state, and local parks have seen massive increases in attendance, and a lot of people utilizing these resources who might not otherwise or who don’t necessarily do it as frequently as they are now. From that standpoint, we’re seeing that there’s this massive uptick in traffic to these places. At the same time, the worry is essentially what they would call in economics, “the tragedy of the commons”, where common-shared resources are overexploited and under-cared for. The worry is that people don’t actually steward these resources and care for them. The ways that we tried to encourage that type of behavior are more relevant now than they ever are.
Would you say that your most recent published research is related to previous topics you’ve researched?
I don’t do a lot of sustainability-related work – that hasn’t been a massive area of focus for me – but this idea of psychological ownership is a thread that ties together a lot of the work that I’ve done. Across a lot of my projects, you will see some measurement of psychological ownership and thinking about that as a mechanism to affect consumers’ behavior. That idea threads with this paper. This paper is just situated in a little bit more of an adjacent domain [to sustainability research], mostly because it’s such an important topic.
The issue of stewardship and caring for our public resources is important. It makes sense for people of all different disciplines, methodological approaches, and philosophies on science to figure out how to combat some of these issues. Approaching it from a marketing or psychological perspective is actually really important.
You can check out this additional article on the Tippie website to read about some of the studies Andrea’s team performed.
Andrea’s research on psychological ownership was recently selected to be featured in the Journal of Marketing’s webinar series on Nov 19th. Andrea and lead author, Joann Peck, will be giving an abbreviated talk about their research, with an open forum for participants to ask questions. If interested in attending, the webinar will begin at 12 pm CST and you can register for the event here.