The Psychology of Stuff

The Psychology of Stuff

Why Are We So Attached?

Before we go into the “downsizing” aspect of the course, it’s important to understand the psychology of stuff. It will help explain why we have a hard time breaking up with our stuff.

"A man’s Self is the sum total of all that he can call his." William James (The Principles of Psychology, 1890)

In 1890, when William James wrote those words, your wealth might have been determined by the number of cattle or acreage you owned. Well, times have changed. BMW, Rolex, Gucci, and Apple have replaced the cows, and they don’t smell nearly as bad!

We as a society have also changed. We’ve become obsessed with this stuff. We’ve perfected the art of ownership. We’re addicts, and for over a century, people have been trying to figure out why.

In 1932, Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget published a study that determined our attachment to stuff begins shortly after birth. It strengthens through adolescence and into adulthood, where we link our stuff directly to who we are and what we’ve achieved in life. Cars, jewelry, and clothes accentuate our personalities. Houses become beacons of success.

As a society, we’ve accumulated so much stuff that the idea of going through it, sorting it, and donating, or throwing it away is so overwhelming that many never even attempt it.

  • Today, 25% of American homeowners can’t fit a car inside their 2-car garage.
  • The average American spends 55 minutes a day (that’s 12 days per year), looking for things they know they own, but can’t find.
  • And 80% of what we own, we never use. Think about that!

Let’s take a look at a few things keeping us from letting go:

Endowment Effect: In 1980, Richard Thaler, a Behavioral Economist, arrived at the theory that people place a higher value on things simply because they own them. They would demand considerably more to give up an object than they would to initially acquire it.

That pair of Rossingnol ski boots you bought in 1987 is keeping you from enjoying a less stressful life.

The Someday Factor:  In your attic sits an easel and a hundred tubes of dried oil paints. They represent a time, in the future, where you’re going to “get back to painting.” In your mind, those items represent everything that “could be.”

“Someday, I’m going to fit into my high-school letterman jacket / prom dress / skinny jeans.”

There is no “Someday.” When you are stressed out, working 80-hour weeks, and living paycheck to paycheck, someday will always remain on the horizon. You have to actively take the steps to give yourself more time and allow someday to be today.

Ever since I simplified my life and moved onto a sailboat, I’ve written and published three Amazon bestselling books. Free Time = Free Mind.

Maybe it’s Genetic! Yes! How cool is this, a chance to pass the buck. Here it is, the Sunk Cost Fallacy and Loss Aversion. That’s a mouthful! But I’m gonna explain.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely writes in his book, Predictably Irrational, “When factoring the costs of any exchange, we tend to focus more on what we may lose rather than on what we stand to gain.”

The Pain of Paying, as he puts it, arises whenever you must give up anything you own. The amount doesn’t matter at first. You’ll feel the pain no matter what price you pay, and it will influence future decisions and behaviors.

Basically this comes down to, “I can’t get rid of those ski boots! They cost me $400.00!” You have that number in your head even though you purchased them many years ago. Those boots are the same age as the space shuttle! Let ‘em go baby. Let ‘em go.

Well, here’s a little truth about retail markups on the common items we purchase. This will hurt your feelings.

  • Jeans: 100 - 350% above wholesale! (Does a 20% off sale get you excited now?)
  • Shoes: 100 - 500%
  • Eyeglasses: 800 - 1,000%
  • Furniture: 200 - 400%

Mr. Ariely complicates things a bit more, believing these traits associated to risk and loss can be passed down from generation to generation. Now… it’s time to break the chain!

Whether or not you believe the genetic connection is real isn’t important. What is important is that you use it as another bit of information to help you understand why you may be holding onto so much stuff. Once you understand it, you can change it!

The Emotional Rescue. This one is a biggie. The explanation? You just can’t give it away. “Aunt Darla gave that to me. It’s special.”

You’ve attached a connection to an object. A connection that you feel will be severed when and if you get rid of that object.

That object, Aunt Darla’s porcelain gravy boat, represents a happy period during your childhood. You associate her with positive, loving memories. If you get rid of the gravy boat, you get rid of the memory.

Let me tell you, those feelings, memories, and connections don’t belong to the object. They belong to you.

PRO TIP: Regift the gift! Yep, give the item back to whoever gave it to you. Now, each time they see the item, it will remind them of you. I call these Turnabout Memories. When and if you ever decide you need that gravy boat back, I betcha Aunt Darla will still have it.

These are just a few examples at the reasons we use to keep us holding on to things. But a movement has begun. Many people are seeking a change. And just like you, they don’t want more. They want better.

As you go through this process, I think it’s really important to understand that LESS doesn’t mean NOTHING! You’re not getting rid of everything you own. You’re paring down to the most essential. Having fewer items usually equates to being able to afford better quality. Not a bad trade-off if you ask me.

So now you have a better understanding of our attachment to stuff. Keep this in mind as you go through the tasks, because it will help on those emotional days when this process seems impossible.

ACTION STEP: If you haven’t already joined the private Facebook community, be sure and do so now. Having people that are going through the same process cheering you on will also help on those days when things feel overwhelming.