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What does the virtual property market tell us about the psychology of ownership?

Mar 28 2022 • 3 min read

How much would you pay for a virtual property? Not one of those ones made of bricks and mortar, but a digital one made of pixels that exists only in the virtual world.

If your answer is around £375,000, then you have something in common with the person who recently purchased Mars House – a virtual home designed by the artist Krista Kim.

There’s a good chance, however, that your answer might be considerably lower. And that you might question the practice of purchasing items that are entirely intangible. But what might at first look like a strange way to spend one’s money reveals something interesting about the psychology of ownership and the underlying reasons why we seek to possess things.

The immediately obvious reason for owning something is that it serves a functional purpose. For example, clothes provide warmth and cars provide transportation. But while physical houses provide shelter, virtual houses do not. Which highlights how we derive more than just functional value from our possessions.

So why else do we seek to own stuff? Researchers studying this question have identified two additional sources of underlying motivation.

The first is that owning something gives us a sense of control over it – an intuition that we develop from a very early age. According to the psychologist Bruce Hood, our urge to possess is therefore partly borne out of a primitive drive to control the physical world around us.

In reality, this sense of control is often contestable from a legal perspective. You might feel like you own your car, for instance, even though it may be leased from a finance company. Or you might feel like you have complete control over your own home, until you are denied planning permission for a small alteration. In short, we seek to own items so that we can control them. And we like to feel that we control them, even when we technically don’t.

The second underlying motivation for owning things relates to our social standing. For it is through our possessions that we express ourselves, signal our status, and project our identity to others. Just as a BMW broadcasts our plentiful resources, for example, a Toyota Prius advertises our environmental conscientiousness.

When we take these additional motivations into account, virtual property purchases start to make more sense. On the one hand, they provide an opportunity to extend our sense of control into a new space. On the other hand, they provide signalling value that satisfies our need for the affection and admiration of others.

Whether we find ourselves shopping for tangible or intangible goods, it is worth remembering firstly that our sense of control over our possessions is often illusory. And secondly that by acquiring items for signalling purposes we are entering a status competition that we cannot win – for there will always be others who are better off than us.

As the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued almost three centuries ago, wealth does not involve having many things, but rather having what we long for. This is as true now as it ever was, and as true for the virtual world as it is for the real world.

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