Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need by Bruce Hood

The Blurb On The Back:

How ownership came to control us – and what we can do about it.

You may not believe it, but there is a link between our current political instability and your childhood attachment to teddy bears.  There’s also a reason why children in Asia are more likely to share than their Western counterparts and why the poor spend more of their income on luxury goods than the rich.  Or why your mother is more likely to leave her money to you than your father.  What connects these things?

The answer is our need for ownership.  Award-winning psychologist Bruce Hood draws on research from his own lab and others around the world to explain why this uniquely human preoccupation governs our behaviour from the cradle to the grave, even when it is often irrational and destructive.  What motives us to buy more than we need?  Is it innate, or cultural?  How does our urge to acquire control our behaviour, even the way we vote?  And what can we do about it?

Timely, engaging and persuasive, Possessed is the first book to explore how ownership has us enthralled in relentless pursuit of a false happiness, with damaging consequences for society and the planet – and how we can stop buying into it. 

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book

You can order POSSESSED: WHY WE WANT MORE THAN WE NEED by Bruce Hood from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Bruce Hood is professor of Developmental Psychology in Society at Bristol University.  This fascinating book examines the psychology of ownership, including distinguishing between legal, moral and psychological possession, links between ownership and personal identity, sharing, the links between wealth and happiness and how to give it away.  I came away with a better understanding of why I have so much stuff that I find difficult to give away.

I picked this up because I moved house a few months ago and was shocked at how much stuff I had managed to accumulate, much of which I no longer needed but had never got around to getting rid of.  Having had to move most of this stuff to my new house (and which I’m still in the process of sorting through and disposing of), I figured that this book would give me some insights as to why I’d allowed it to get so out of control.

Bruce Hood has been studying sharing and ownership in children for several years now and has taken a broad overview of the topic for the purposes of this book.  Published in 2019, he started writing it in 2016 and in the Author’s Notes at the end says that he inadvertently ended up addressing how ownership interacted with Trump’s election in the USA and the Brexit situation.

The book starts by examining whether we ever really own anything with Hood examining the concept of ownership of body parts (including some interesting real life stories that are morbid but also fascinating), slavery and the way in which European powers “traded” for land from indigenous tribes in America.  Particularly interesting is the segment on women’s rights of ownership over their own property in relation to marriage (some of which I was aware of but the fact that a married woman couldn’t have a mortgage in her own name until 1980 was quite an eye opener).  

Hood’s section on the possession that parents feel towards their children is breezy but I wasn’t convinced by the comparison between child sex trafficking and 19th century child labour.  I was equally unconvinced by the attempt to link the rise of Trump to uncertainty, which triggers a flight or flight response that attracts people to politicians promoting a strong, resolute vision because I think that underestimates the visceral racism that was also at play.  The section on intellectual property and virtual ownership was interesting and given the recent rise in cryptocurrency and particularly NFTs, I’d be interested to read Hood’s views on the attractions of the same.

From here Hood moves on to looking at why ownership and possession developed for humanity.  I was particularly interested in the section on inheritance and the differences in how fathers and mothers bequeath their property to their children and how that ties in with biology.  Also interesting were the sections on children’s attitudes towards property, theft and the ‘bystander effect’, which is Hood’s area of research.    

Chapter 3 looks at the origins of ownership, which begins by looking at art and what makes it valuable.  I enjoyed the section on toddlers and possession and on who can own things (which kicks off with a story about a person who left their fortune to some dogs).  The most interesting (to me) section though was on why some adults remain attached to teddy bears and other comfort items from their childhood because I still have the toy panda that my great uncle Harry gave me as a christening present and cannot bear to be parted from it (when I was a kid, it was the item I saved when the fire alarm went off in a hotel my family was staying in).  Hood’s explanations here really resonated with me.

In Chapter 4, Hood looks at inequality and sharing of resources, some of which repeated points that I had read in other books that have considered that specific subject (not that this is a criticism of Hood, just a statement that the points were familiar to me, albeit Hood included more psychological research to explain them).  The section on selfish behaviour and hypocrisy was new to me though and I did find the section on why people vote against their economic self-interest to be eye opening, as was the section which demonstrates why when times get tough people actually prove to be more generous and less competitive in terms of sharing resources.

The chapter where Hood looks at possessions, wealth and happiness resonated with me as Hoof canters through the rise of consumerism, why poorer people are more likely to buy expensive things (including looking at links between possession and self-esteem and status) and how there has been a shift from possession to experiences as a way both of one-up-manning competitors but also because experiences become part of a person’s social identity and built into their memories.

In the penultimate chapter Hood delves further into the link between possessions and self, taking in why some people name important possessions, possession fetishism and the impact of a digital ‘afterlife’.  Particularly interesting for me, here, is the digression into how psychological research tends to default towards WEIRD (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) because it’s carried out on campuses with students who are most likely to fit this bill even though they only account for 12% of the world’s population.  As a result, there’s a dearth of psychological research into people from other ethnographic groups, which makes it difficult to extrapolate behaviours from studies.  Hood uses this to look at some of the research on ownership and possession that does look at different ethnic groups, which gives rise to some interesting points about concepts of selfishness and how they may be cultural rather than intrinsically biological.

The final chapter focuses on economic behaviour and ownership and the concept of “value”.  Here Hood considers the affect of the novelty and pleasure of acquisition and the emotional impact when people think they’re losing their property.  I have to say that the detour into the links here with honour killing and family annihilation didn’t sit right with me, mainly because “honour killings” are tied into a number of different triggers and not just possession and ownership so to have an aside on what’s such a serious subject just didn’t feel right.  There was a really interesting section on the US concept of eminent domain and how it was used to evict people from their homes in the city of New London for a planned development that was ultimately abandoned.  

All in all, this is a breezy read that’s easy to follow and held my interest from beginning to end.  I certainly came away feeling that I had more insight into the psychology of ownership and possession and into why western societies have trended towards greater inequality.  On that basis, I think it’s worth a few hours of your time.  

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