In a colorfully decorated classroom, a five-year-old boy is asked to describe his favorite belonging. He talks effusively about the dinosaur T-shirt his mom forced him to put in the wash that morning. Then he plays two simple computer games, trying, of course, to win. But the fix is in: experimenters have arranged that he will win one game and lose the other (and, to avoid suffering harm, will win a third and final game at the experiment's end). After winning and after losing, he, like the other boys and girls in this 2015 study conducted by psychologist Gil Diesendruck of Bar-Ilan University in Israel and his colleague, is asked by an adult whether he would be willing to lend this favorite thing to another child for one night.
This experiment set out to explore whether injury to young children's sense of self resulted in a stronger attachment to personally meaningful possessions. The results were dramatic. Children were almost twice as likely to be willing to share their most treasured belonging after winning the game than after losing. Yet in a control situation involving possessions they cared less about, the children's success or failure in the games had no effect on their willingness to part with the items.
Such experiments are among the latest efforts to understand the deeply emotional and psychologically complex relationship between humans, their sense of security and their material possessions. Much of this new research builds on the late 20th-century work of pioneering psychologists John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and Donald Winnicott. They famously theorized that an infant's attachment to his or her mother and the quality of that attachment significantly influenced that child's future relationships. Winnicott also suggested that as an infant begins to perceive that he or she has an independent self that is separate from the mother, that infant can learn to feel more secure with a “transitional object” that stands in for her. In popular parlance, we call this a “security blanket.”