Why you can't get rid of the rubbish in your garage

June 26, 2015

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Have you got a bunch of crap in your wardrobe gathering dust? I have. In fact, in almost every storage space I have, I could list at least one or two things that haven't been used for months. Very...

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Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

Have you got a bunch of crap in your wardrobe gathering dust? I have. In fact, in almost every storage space I have, I could list at least one or two things that haven't been used for months. Very occasionally, this stuff is important. I mean, I don't use my shovel very often, but when I want to dig some dirt, I don't want to be using my hands. More often though, the stuff is not that important. Or replaceable. I could go to the library and borrow all the books I want, when I want them, rather than having a bunch of books on useful topics 'just in case'. Hence the rise of the minimalist movement. As more people have more stuff than ever before, it's starting to become a burden. So why do we keep all our unnecessary stuff?

It's not laziness, it's your brain

The endowment effect. A cognitive bias that makes your stuff worth much more than it's worth (to you). As soon as something becomes your property, your brain immediately jacks up its value. Tell someone they own something, and just minutes later, they'll rate it as more valuable AND pay more to retain it than they would to obtain it from someone else.

It's not that no one will buy it, it's that you won't let them

One study looked at the value of baseball tickets when owned and when not owned and noted that when we own the tickets, we value them 14x higher than when we don't! In another, owning a mug made participants feel it was worth double than what they would have paid to get it in the first place. The endowment effect is a pretty robust finding, is what I'm saying. As soon as something becomes yours, you lose track of it's real world value.

Knowing how it works means you can finally clear out the shed

There are a bunch of contributing factors, all play a part, but all are fairly easy to combat:
  • Loss Aversion: the pain of loss is worth more than the pleasure of gain. So you would need to pay me more money to lose something than I'd be willing to pay to gain the same thing.
  • Ownership: when we 'own' something, we attribute it to ourselves. This may be linked to how we synthesise happiness (which we talk about here). Essentially, our ownership makes our brain scramble to align the fact that we own the object with our beliefs and values so we don't experience cognitive dissonance (mental pain coming from conflicting mental states, something our brains hates).
  • Our frame of reference: things framed as a loss are more salient (more important to us and they are weighted more heavily) than things framed as a gain. This feeds into the 'fear of missing out' you may have heard of; we are far more likely to fixate on the bad things about missing out than the good things of doing whatever we were doing instead. In this case, we are more likely to fixate on the fact we are losing something and what that means.
  • Connections: we attribute significance to the object once we own it, forming connections from it to us (e.g. something gains sentimental value)
  • Our evolution: back when we were cave(wo)men, there were less people to trade with, so people who valued stuff more after they got it ended up making better trades and proliferating more (look, it's a crude explanation, but you get the idea)
Now, psychologists (and in this instance, behavioural economists) do this ridiculous thing when developing theories. They come up with this one idea about how something might work and focus on that to the exclusion of any other theory. In fact, this article is literally titled "ownership and not loss aversion causes the endowment effect". It's essentially an 'I'm rubber and you're glue' kind of thing and it is responsible for a lot of gaps in our knowledge of the human mind. Fortunately (hopefully), you aren't as detrimentally invested in one particular item because it's clear that all of these theories are likely to be inter-related and that there are a couple of things you can do to stop yourself falling into the trap:
  1. Make sure you frame getting rid of your stuff as a good thing. Focus on the positives.
  2. Think hard about what you did to get the item. How much did you pay? Did you save for it? Did you really want it? Maybe you should keep it, and actually use it then, if you worked that hard to get it. But, if (and more likely) you didn't actually work that hard, just thinking about it will make it easier to let go.
  3. When you buy new stuff, really focus on the mental and physical cost of obtaining it. Doing that will make it easier to categorise it's importance if you decide you might not want it in the future. Don't let your brain bias you later.
Speaking of your mind's tricks, you might be interested in how smiles secretly change how you think. Or three hidden things that control our relationships with friends, family and partners (and how to control them back). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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