The Endowment Effect and Stuff

The best things in life are not stuff

The endowment effect is the notion that people attribute more value to things simply because they own them.  Much like the Stockholm Syndrome, where captives develop compassion and loyalty to their captors, victims of clutter may find it easy to make excuses for their overabundant possessions and even feel comforted by them.  These possessions literally hold us prisoners.  It can be hard to let go and free our life of clutter.

Blame evolution.  Our ancestors lived with chronic scarcity and getting rid of anything was risky business. You might be left cold, hungry and naked.  Scarcity is no longer a problem.  The number of items for sale is mind-boggling and they can be had with the click of a mouse or a quick trip to the mall.  “Retail therapy” is the number one American pastime.

Behavioral economists have devised clever experiments that prove we are reluctant to let go of things even if we don’t need them, or like them. We can be psychologically and emotionally saddened by letting go of something, which often outweighs the joy of acquiring the item in the first place.  Holding on to things we don’t like, want or need is one way of protecting ourselves from this sadness.  And it’s also the way to be awash in clutter.

This might sound like a lot of psycho-econ-babble, but the message is simple:  Be careful about what you acquire because it can own you, rather than you owning it.

You may be a victim of the endowment effect if you make excuses for your clutter, saying things like: “It’s not that much stuff.  I might need this some day.  It was a gift from my mother.  I’ve already got a lot of piles, one more won’t matter.”

Maybe you are identifying and sympathizing with your captor- all that stuff!