Pack-Rat Psychology

I am sorting, cleaning, throwing stuff away.  It is hard to throw some things.  I, and I bet you, start thinking, “This might be useful.”  An article on the site of the Beeb was, therefore, of great interest.  It may interest you as well.

Why we love to hoard… and how you can overcome it

Question: How do you make something instantly twice as expensive?

Answer: By thinking about giving it away.

This might sound like a nonsensical riddle, but if you’ve ever felt overly possessive about your regular parking space, your pen, or your Star Wars box sets, then you’re experiencing some elements behind the psychology of ownership. Our brains tell us that we value something merely because it is a thing we have.

This riddle actually describes a phenomenon called the Endowment Effect. The parking space, the pen and the DVDs are probably the same as many others, but they’re special to you. Special because in some way they are yours.

You can see how the endowment effect escalates – how else can you explain the boxes of cassette tapes, shoes or mobile phones that fill several shelves of your room… or even several rooms?

No trade

To put a scientific lens on what’s going on here, a team led by psychologist Daniel Kahneman carried out a simple experiment. They took a class of ordinary University students and gave half of them a University-crested mug, the other half received $6 – the nominal cost of the mug. [This example was in The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise by Arthur C. Brooks.]

Classic economics states that the students should begin to trade with each other. The people who were given cash but liked mugs should swop some of their cash [for] a mug, and some of the people who were given mugs should swop their mugs for some cash. This, economic theory says, is how prices emerge – the interactions of all buyers and sellers finds the ideal price of goods. The price – in this case, of mugs – will be a perfect balance between the desires of people who want a mug and have cash, and the people who want cash and have a mug.  [My mugs would skew the experiment.]

But economic theory lost out to psychology.


This is the endowment effect, and it is the reason why things reach a higher price at auctions – because people become attached to the thing they’re bidding for, experiencing a premature sense of ownership that pushes them to bid more than they would otherwise. It is also why car dealers want you to test drive the car, encouraging you in everyway to think about what it would be like to possess the car. The endowment effect is so strong that even imagined ownership can increase the value of something.

Breaking habits

The endowment effect is a reflection of a general bias in human psychology to favour the way things are, rather than the way they could be. I call this status quo bias, and we can see reflections of it in the strength of habits that guide our behaviour, in the preference we have for the familiar over the strange or the advantage the incumbent politician has over a challenger.  [Not I!]

Knowing the powerful influence that possession has on our psychology, I take a simple step to counteract it. I try to use my knowledge of the endowment effect to help me de-clutter my life. Perhaps this can be useful to you too.

Say I am cleaning out my stuff. Before I learnt about the endowment effect I would go through my things one by one and try to make a decision on what to do with it.


Now, knowing the power of the bias, for each item I ask myself a simple question: If I didn’t have this, how much effort would I put in to obtain it? And then more often or not I throw it away, concluding that if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t want this.

Let this anti-endowment effect technique perform its magic for you, and you too will soon be joyously throwing away things that you only think you want, but actually wouldn’t trouble yourself to acquire if you didn’t have them.

And here’s the thing… it works for emails too.




About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Tonia says:

    Interesting. I guess this is why you need to de-personalize your home before selling it. You want people to already feel like it’s theirs when they walk round.

  2. Supertradmum says:

    I basically got rid of everything except some writings, 1,000 books, basic clothes and shoes I needed, photos and family documents, some Catholic keepsakes (mostly paper things) and icons. All the rest went almost two years ago. I had some things stolen from my flat, which helped, actually. I gave so much stuff away which I thought was necessary in the past, and I never felt so free in my life.

    I miss nothing, which is the most amazing thing. When I sold my house many years ago, before the crash,and as I could not afford it anymore, I sold it to the first person who looked at it within three days. God sometimes makes things easy for us to let go.

    God bless you. I think you will truly feel a lot different paring down. I think you will feel less stress. Stuff causes stress.

    But, I have never been a hoarder. As we say in the Midwest, there are hoarders and throwers. I am a thrower. Again, bless you and the psychology thing was interesting.

  3. John 6:54 says:

    The Endowment Effect is way to rooted in my life. It took my wife and I 10 minutes to discuss whether or not we should throw away a standard clay flower pot that had sat outside for a few years and had even moved houses with us a year ago. The first comment was “well we may use it”

    Thankfully it has made the trash can.

  4. o.h. says:

    Cleaning/decluttering maven “the Flylady” teaches techniques for overcoming this psychological hurdle. One is to remind yourself that the thrift stores are stuffed with old, used items – so it’s safe for you to get rid of this particular old, used item, as you can easily replace it. Another is to envision your living space when all the junk is gone: this gives you another, superior “object” with which to replace the ones you’re decluttering.

  5. anilwang says:

    John 6:54, that’s an easy one. My family loved a lot when I was a child and the first thing you learn is that having stuff is a burden, so it better be worth your while to keep it. I’m sentimental, so by nature I will try to keep stuff even remotely connected with some significant event or person or time. I’m also a book hoard…it pains me to get rid of *any* book. How I handle throwing away stuff is that I place all candidates in a box and leave it there for a year. If after a year I don’t remember what’s in the box or remember and don’t care, I just get rid of the box *without* opening it. If I remember what’s in it and do care, I leave it in for another year and repeat. After a while, if that box doesn’t get thrown away, I keep the contents as something truly sentimental, but most of the time, I eventually forget or don’t care about the formerly sentimental item since its not in my sight all the time. I prepared such boxes every six months. You’ll be amazed at how much stuff you really don’t need.

  6. Indulgentiam says:

    First, the excellent prayer to St. Joseph and the instruction to “be specific” And I was. Not one day later an answer! I need to move but every closet in the place seems to have exploded the place looks like a war zone and frankly i’ve felt defeated. But now, armed with this information, I have a fresh plan of attack.    “I shall not flag or fail. I shall go on to the end. I shall fight in the psyche, i shall fight in the closets and cabinets, i shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in every storage container. I shall defend my sanity, whatever the cost may be. I shall fight on the beaches of attachment, i shall fight on the landing-ground of concupisense, i shall fight the toy and gewgaw, I shall fight the bauble and knickknack . I shall never surrender!”
    My apologies to Sir Winston Churchill for the flagrant plagiarism.
    My thanks to the good God, Our Lady, St. Joseph and you Father.

  7. St. Epaphras says:

    Indulgentiam, you’re so funny! Think I’ll write your “Churchill” quote on a card or something and tape it to the bathroom mirror (and send it to certain relations of mine).

  8. scarda says:

    I went through the de-accession process almost a decade ago. It was much easier when I used the criterion ‘what can I NOT live without?’ Put in those terms, there were very few things in the keep box, and lots of books and furnishings went to other homes, and I have lived without the things easily. Giving the gifts was a double blessing: I was free and people received things they valued.

  9. pelerin says:

    I went to look at the BBC article and it told me that it was not accessible from the UK!!

  10. Tina in Ashburn says:

    Interesting perspective on owning that I had never heard of or imagined. The “inertia of ownership” aspect makes sense. This explains one aspect of why outsiders can be helpful in clearing out stuff.

    More proof that the underlying fault of hoarders is avarice and greed [obviously in varying degrees between ‘sort of’ and ‘sick’] with a little bit of sins against hope/trust sprinkled in. The exercise of detaching myself from possessions takes courage and setting the jaw. Oh and lots of caffeine.

    Setting the goals are a help as goals keep me from focusing on the thing itself: that feeling of freedom, liberality and giving, practicing necessary detachment, newly found space and organization, a picture in my head of empty shelves, basement floor, a wall. To that list now I can add: pretend I didn’t know it existed and isn’t really there. [chuckle]

    I like the encouraging stories here that divesting can be done.

    Father I wonder if you thought to take before and after pictures?

  11. benedetta says:

    I lived for years in three room apartments in nyc. Then when we moved to the suburbs into a large house by then I was so used to a decluttering routine that I was shocked to find so many places to put things and few things to fill up closets, drawers, and cabinets. It’s a good habit to get into, I think, and less stressful overall to have breathing room.

  12. Charivari Rob says:

    “They took a class of ordinary University students and gave half of them a University-crested mug, the other half received $6 – the nominal cost of the mug.”

    Nominal cost? Clearly, they didn’t buy those mugs in the University campus store.

  13. Jane says:

    I have written some poems. This is my favourite one.
    It seems appropriate for this section of the blog.

    The Clutter Monster

    Watch out for the clutter monster,
    Who wants to ruin your life.
    He’ll move in uninvited,
    And proceed to cause you strife.

    He tells you to save,
    Each magazine and bill,
    If you follow his advice,
    Your house will over-fill !

    He tells you to keep this,
    He tells you to keep that,
    Even to keep,
    Your grandfather’s hat.

    With things in boxes,
    All over the place,
    You’ll soon find out,
    You have no space!

    He’s convinced you to keep,
    All of your junk.
    His advice to you,
    Is just plain bunk!

    Throw out some paper,
    And claim your life back,
    The clutter monster,
    Will at first give you flack.

    If you keep up your efforts,
    Your house will look swell.
    Clutter monster in your house,
    No longer shall dwell.
    By Mary Ann
    (which is my real name)

  14. Jane says:

    I am fascinated by those hoarder T.V programs, but I don’t want to star in one!
    As well as the Clutter Monster, I have also written another poem on the topic. Here it is.’

    Spring cleaning

    It’s time to spring clean
    and it’s long overdue
    Where do I start?
    I haven’t a clue!

    Books clothes and paper
    are strewn everywhere!
    The first thing I’ll do
    Is send up a prayer!

  15. majuscule says:

    Oh how timely! I am going to use this information!

    I had some items to get rid of a while back so I thought I’d sell them on eBay. I had an idea of what I thought they were worth. But a little research showed that items similar to mine either didn’t sell at all at the price I thought the item was worth, or sold at such a ridiculously low price it wasn’t worth my time to list them.

    My daughter always reminds me of the joy someone else will get out of the item gathering dust in the back of the closet.

    I will think fondly of them as I discard it.

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