Building psychological ownership can help governments preserve parks and public spaces

Building psychological ownership can help governments preserve parks and public spaces

More cash-strapped governments are looking for alternative methods of funding to maintain parks, roads, and other public spaces, turning to mechanisms such as corporate stadium sponsorships or adopt-a-highway programs that leverage private resources.

A new study from the University of Iowa suggests that an effective way to build support for public goods is to create a sense of psychological ownership so people become motivated to actively care about preserving it. Andrea Luangrath, assistant professor of marketing in the Tippie College of Business and study co-author, says that sense of ownership increases peoples’ sense of responsibility, which motivates them to actively care for the public good.

Luangrath’s research team worked with recreational equipment rental operators at a lake and a state park. At the lake, they asked kayak renters to give a nickname to the lake and to write it down. Researchers then watched to see if kayakers were more likely to pick up floating trash that had been planted in the lake.

At the state park, staff members asked cross-country ski renters to trace their planned route on a trail map in advance. They were then asked if they wanted to add one extra dollar to help maintain the park.

On the lake, 41% of the kayakers who were asked to come up with a nickname picked up the trash. Only 7% of those in a control group who were not asked to give the lake a nickname picked up the trash.

On the trails, 86% of the cross-country skiers who mapped their route in advance agreed to pay an extra dollar for park preservation. Only 32% of skiers in a control group who were not asked to map their route agreed to donate an extra dollar.

Luangrath says that coming up with a nickname for the lake or planning a ski route encourages people to invest themselves in the public good, which generates a sense of ownership of the lake or park. This is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced people to find more recreational outdoor activities at many local, state, and national parks, and increased the need for maintenance.

Luangrath’s study, “Caring for the Commons: Using Psychological Ownership to Enhance Stewardship Behavior for Public Goods,” is published in the Journal of Marketing.


Tom Snee, Office of Strategic Communication, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell)

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