Colleen Kirk, New York Institute of Technology – Shopper Psychological Ownership and Territoriality

How can companies avoid offending shoppers who are psychologically invested in their products?

Colleen Kirk, assistant professor of marketing at New York Institute of Technology, examines the territorial behavior shoppers display when a product or place feels special to them.

Colleen P. Kirk’s research centers around consumer behavior, especially in the areas of psychological ownership, emotions, and decision-making. Specific areas of interest include: exploring how and when consumers’ feelings of ownership lead to territorial responses; understanding how consumers come to feel a sense of ownership of intangible digital technologies and its implications for marketers; narcissism in consumer behavior; and nonconscious processing and investor behavior. Focusing her research on experimental design, Dr. Kirk is also interested in survey methodologies and structural equation modeling. Her work is published in top journals such as Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Advertising Research, Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice, Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, Journal of Brand Management, Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, and Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services. An award-winning researcher and reviewer, she presents at leading national and international conferences, and is a regular reviewer for top journals.

In addition to her research, Dr. Kirk has an extensive professional background in product management, marketing, and sales in the computer industry. Prior to joining the faculty at NYIT as assistant professor of marketing, she taught for five years as assistant professor of marketing at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y., and previously as an adjunct professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. in Math, Computer Science, and Business. Dr. Kirk enjoys engaging her students in live projects for industry and nonprofit organizations, which gives students hands-on experience in applying marketing theory while providing value to clients.

Dr. Kirk holds a Bachelor of Arts from Cornell University, a Master of Business Administration from Southern Methodist University, a Master of International Management from the Thunderbird School of Global Management, and a Doctor of Professional Studies in Marketing and International Economics from Pace University.

Shopper Psychological Ownership and Territoriality


When shoppers feel the delight of discovering “that perfect something,” it sparks what is called “psychological ownership.” This phenomenon helps companies market their products, but they need to beware of a side effect of psychological ownership: territorial behavior.

My colleagues and I have discovered that consumers who feel psychological ownership risk feeling infringed upon, either by other shoppers or by employees. And when consumers feel infringed, they are likely to strike back in ways that may hurt business.

Our research shows that there are three ways to demonstrate psychological ownership:

  • Tell of your intimate knowledge of something, such as when you say, “I know this little pizza place really well”;
  • Touch or control something, such as when you put something in your shopping bag; or
  • Customize something, such as telling a server you want extra tomatoes in your salad.

Our research team experimented with people who felt psychological ownership over something tangible, such as a cup of coffee, or intangible, such as a design. These consumers felt infringed when others communicated their own psychological ownership over the same things.

Consumers who feel infringed are likely to leave a smaller tip for a server; to leave a store without buying anything; and not to return to the offending business. We even observed retaliatory behavior: when an infringing person dropped a dollar bill or a pen, the infringed person was less likely to mention it.

What do employees do to provoke territoriality? It could be a server touching a customer’s plate before they’ve finished eating, or an employee unintentionally belittling a customer’s thorough research about a product with a show of superior knowledge.

While we consumers might need to be careful not to touch something another shopper has claimed, businesses should be especially careful not to trespass on someone else’s psychological ownership.

Read More:
[Journal of Consumer Research] – Property Lines in the Mind: Consumers’ Psychological Ownership and Their Territorial Responses,

by Colleen P. Kirk, Joann Peck, and Scott D. Swain