The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 147: The Psychology Of Stuff

Clients will often tell me that they feel overwhelmed with even the simple things in life, their house is a mess and they just don’t know where to start putting it right.
They feel that there’s so much to do that it’s easier to just do nothing and watch everything gather dust, further contributing to their depression and self esteem issues.
So occasionally someones homework is just to go and tidy out their garage or their garden shed, to throw out some old stuff that they don’t need and begin creating an environment that feels more spacious and gives them room to breathe. And it really helps.
But it also highlights when someone might have a bit of a hoarding problem. Occasionally people will talk about their collection of magazines that goes back 10 years that might come in useful, so they don’t throw them away.
They say that getting rid of all their old stuff makes them feel really quite anxious as there are these mixed up emotions of waste and loss, as if to get rid of something invalidates it’s usefulness.
It’s odd how our brain plays these tricks on us, one interesting piece of research to come out of MRI brain scanner machines is that we use the same neurons for thinking about ourself as we do for thinking about our possessions. We see our things as an extension of ourselves, and that’s probably why we put more value on something we own compared to something that we don’t.
Most children will have an unusually intense relationship with a specific ‘attachment object’, usually it’s their favourite blanket or a soft toy. This is often called The Endowment Effect and you can even see it with apes and monkeys.
One very clever and subtle way of showing this in adults was done by Daniel Kahneman and some of his colleagues back in the 1990s. They created an experiment in which participants were each given a mug and were later on offered the chance to sell it or trade it for an equally valued alternative of some pens.
They found that the amount everyone wanted as compensation to give up the mug was twice as much as the amount they were willing to pay to acquire the mug in the first place.
Owning something doubles its value!
Similarly when half of a group are given a chocolate bar and told not to eat it, but later on are asked if they would be willing to swap it for a mug nearly everyone says “No.”
Does this mean that chocolate bars have more value to us than mugs do?
Nope. Because if you do it the other way around you get the same results, give someone a mug and then later on ask them if they would be willing to swap it for a chocolate bar nearly all say “No.”
It’s owning it in the first place that gives something greater value, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes. In fact what one bizarre experiment showed is that you don’t even need to have actually bought it for its value to go up in your head, merely touching it will do that too according to research done by Joann Peck at the University of Wisconsin, and even just “imagining” that you’re touching it will too.
Another research project that showed this was at Boston College, where they compared how we value items we’ve added to an online shopping cart using different devices.Some used a PC with a mouse, some a touchable computer screen and some a laptop with a trackpad.
Afterwards everyone was asked how much money they were willing to accept if someone else wanted to buy these items from them. On average, people in the trackpad group wanted $44, the mouse group was $47 and the touch screen was $68!
All they’d done was touch a picture of the product and they found they valued it more. So the experimenters did the same thing again this time comparing an iPad and a laptop with a trackpad, On average, those using the iPad wanted to sell their item for significantly more than those that were using a laptop. $213 compared to $154. Just pressing their finger against a digital image on a fake website. That’s all it took to make people feel like they actually owned an item, and then to value it more because of it.
So next time you’re doing your online shopping maybe put down the tablet and use your laptop instead, you might find you save a bit of cash.