Let's explore why we are so attached to our clutter and have a hard time letting things go even if we don't love them or use them.
There is a specific reason why letting go of things (and even beliefs) is so hard and as a result why we hang on to and are attached to our clutter.
We as humans are very attached to our things, and just a quick sidenote, if you think that it's not hard for me to let go of things, or that I am not attached to my things because I live a clutter-free life and help my clients clear their clutter, then my friend I'm sorry to say but you are wrong.
I am just like you, very attached to my things, I am also very sentimental just go back to my blog post and podcast episode called Can you be sentimental and live clutter-free where I share with you the story of my 20-year-old jacket.
But so why are we so attached to our things?
Well one of the reasons why (even if we don't own them for 20 years yet) is, that we value items much more highly as soon as we own them. This phenomenon is called
that means, we have a tendency to undervalue things that aren’t ours and to overvalue things because we already own them.
You can see the tendency to undervalue things that aren't ours when you pay attention to how you (or other people) treat leased or rented things (sometimes even borrowed things).
We automatically tend to be less careful with them, don't clean it as much or as thorough, we don't take care of it as much, don't maintain it properly etc. On the other hand, we overvalue things because they are ours, because we own them, no matter how long.
The coffee mug study
In a study demonstrating the power of the endowment effect, the Nobel Prize–winning researcher Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues did an experiment and gave coffee mugs to only half the people in a group.
Then the people with the mugs was asked how much they would be willing to sell their mug for, while the group without mugs was asked what they would be willing to pay for such a mug.
The people who were "selling" the mugs didn't want to sell them for less than $5.25, while the group without the cups was not willing to buy them for more than $2.75.
The Endowment Effect when clearing clutter
What does that mean now when you are clearing your clutter?
Well, you've probably experienced the following situation, you decided to clear your clutter and started going through your things, but item after item you can't seem to let go of a single one.
They all seem to become more valuable the minute you contemplate whether or not to giving them away.
Think of books on your shelf that you haven’t read in years or are outdated, or kitchen appliances still sitting in the box in the garage never used or maybe used once, or a sweater you bought at a Black Friday sales 5 years ago but never wore.
Whether or not you love these items and use them, subconsciously, the very fact that they are yours makes you value them more highly than you would if they didn’t belong to you.
In addition to that, we also believe that items have a unique essence. This explains why we put more value onto items that belonged to celebrities for example, or our favourite sports team, or why we have so much trouble letting go of family heirlooms -- even if we have no use of these items or have moved on in life and have other priorities now.
Learned behaviour or human nature?
What I find very interesting to know is, that this attachment to things that are ours does not seem to be a learned behaviour but human nature and something that we experience already as babies.
Jean Piaget – a founding father of child psychology – observed that our sense of ownership emerges incredibly early when he witnessing the "violent rage" shown by babies whenever they were deprived of an item they considered their own.
If you have children of your own, you might have experienced that as well when for example a sibling takes away an item from his brother or sister.
Check out this short but informative 4-minute TED-Ed video by Christian Jarrett on why are we so attached to our things to learn more about what Jean Piaget observed and realized and the effects of the endownment phenomenon.
Is this now an excuse to not clear your clutter?
Of course this knowledge about the endowment effect and that it is our human nature to be attached to things is not an excuse to never clear clutter or just keeping everything and every thing, in your life.
Instead, you can use this knowledge by keeping in mind, being aware and really understanding that you are overvaluing items you own especially the moment you consider letting them go.
Often when I help people clear their clutter we come across many items that they say "oh I had no idea I still have this", or "oh, I had no idea I even had this". They lived perfectly fine, without feelings of loss, deprivation, scarcity or regret of not having such an item until they discovered they have the item and that very moment they became attached and reluctant to give it away.
All the "what if..." questions come up, what if I need it, what if I regret giving it away, what if I need it and can't afford to buy it, etc etc.
What Is The Solution?
A great approach when you come up to this challenge while clearing your clutter is asking yourself the following questions:
- if I didn’t already own this item, how much would I pay to buy it?
- if I didn't already own this item, how much effort would I put into acquiring one just like it?
- if I didn't already own this item, would I go out of my way to get it?
While money is important really ask yourself how much energy, time and extra effort you would be willing to put into getting this item.
So next time your clearing clutter and you have a hard time letting go of things you never use and don't even love, remember that this is the endowment effect playing tricks on you. Realize that you lived perfectly fine without knowing you had the item, or without needing the item, and that now that you have found it, you are overvaluing it.
Ask yourself honestly, how much money and energy would you put into getting this item if you didn't have it already and then make a decision to keeping and using it, or letting it go.
As a clutter clearing coach and practitioner I will never tell you to get rid of anything, what I do help you see is the effect all this clutter has on you, your life and your business.
- Download your guide to set up your workspace for success
- Can you be sentimental and live clutter-free?
- Ted-ed video Why are we so attached to our things
- If you want to know more about my background check out my about page
- Check out the eBook that I co-authored with Vicki McLeodFrom Chaos to Peace - a simple program to clear your clutter and change your life
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