In theory, minimizing my possessions is an entertaining daydream, something akin to wondering what I would look like with bangs. In reality, I'm sitting, overwhelmed and sweaty, amidst 15 "Can't bear to give away" piles within an hour. Ever wondered why decluttering your space is so difficult? Don't worry; it's not just you.
In the latest addition to the TED-Ed YouTube series, host Christian Jarrett goes deep into why TF it can be so hard to clear out the clutter in our lives (just in time to tackle all those Marie Kondo-inspired New Year's resolutions). Unsurprisingly, the explanation is a combination of behavioral science and cultural bias.
The psychology of ownership was first studied by Jean Piaget, one of the founding fathers of developmental psychology, after witnessing what parents, baby-sitters and siblings everywhere have seen countless times: The violent, hysterical reaction of children when deprived of an object they've designated as "theirs." Piaget realized that our sense of ownership develops incredibly early on in life; indeed, his studies led to the identification of the "Endowment Effect," a dictating force in why we care so much about what we own.
Interestingly, though, studies of egalitarian cultures with little or no contact with the "modern world," scientists found that "Endowment Effect" never really came into play, implying a cultural component to our "Mine! Mine! Mine!" habits.
So if you're ready to really, truly, once and for all, tackle your own hoard, get ready for some introspection. Here are five reasons it's so dang hard to clear all the clutter out of your life.
We Inherently Place More Value On Items We Consider Ours.
As I mentioned earlier, this phenomenon is called the "Endowment Effect." It's irrational, but humans have a strong tendency towards over-valuing anything, no matter how small, once they feel ownership towards it. In one study from 1989 (which I dug up for you so you can read it yourself — you're welcome), participants were given either a chocolate bar or a coffee mug, and then offered the opportunity to trade. Regardless of their initial item, only 11 percent opted to switch. This phenomenon even extends to people who engage in bidding wars at auctions, too: They want it, they see themselves owning it, they feel ownership, and suddenly, the monetary value skyrockets.
And We Form Deep Connections With Our Belongings.
Even on a neural level. In one study, scientists scanned peoples' brains while they moved belongings into two baskets, labeled "Mine" and "Alex's." (And no, I do not know who Alex is. They are probably made up, because everything in life is a lie.) When the participants looked at their newly acquired things, the part of the brain that flickers when we think about ourselves lit up. Our sense of self is deeply intwined with what we own.
So, Naturally, We Use "Family Heirlooms" To Feel Connections With Lost Loved Ones.
Children between the ages of three and six were convinced that there existed a cloning machine, and were presented with the option of taking home their favorite belonging, or a clone. Not only did they overwhelmingly choose to keep their original toy, many were deeply unsettled by the belief that an exact replica now existed.
This experiment presented further evidence that we believe belongings have a unique essence, and their owners imbue them with further meaning — hence the concept of "family heirlooms." Which is not to say that you should get rid of them — but it can be important to consciously work against the belief, however small, that holding onto birthday cards and ticket stubs and receipts will somehow bring a person back.
Or, You Know, Celebrities.
Be honest — if you were to get your hands on a bandana that once belonging to Justin Bieber, you might begin consciously subscribing to the belief that we imbue things with our "essence," right?
Because We Oftentimes Feel That To Get Rid Of An Item Is To Risk Losing Whatever Memory We've Attached To It
In a culture that compulsively documents every moment and every thought, it can be stressful to discard items that function as tangible memories.
Decluttering has its benefits, though — sometimes you need to let go of memories in order to move on, for example — so it's worth it to give everything a deep cleaning every now and again, whether you Kondo yourself completely or just neaten up a bit. Happy cleaning!