The Psychology Behind Why We Can't Throw Things Away

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We form connections between our sense of self and the things we consider ours on a neural level. Kevin Murphy/Reuters

This article first appeared on Medical Daily.

At a young age, we established a sense of ownership with our toys, like Barbie dolls or trucks and cars. When these toys were taken away from us, either by our parents, teachers or foes, we'd be enraged, throw a tantrum. We learned to value items much more highly as soon as we owned them; This is known as the endowment effect.

In Ted-ED's latest video, "Why are we so attached to our things?" host Christian Jarrett explains how we quickly form connections between our sense of self and the things we consider ours can be seen on a neural level. In one experiment, neuroscientists scanned participants' brains while they allocated various objects either to a basket labeled "mine" or another labeled "Alex's." When participants subsequently looked at their new things, their brains showed more activity in a region that usually flickers into life whenever we think about ourselves.

We also become so fond of our possessions from a young age, because we believe they have a unique essence. Psychologists demonstrated this by using an illusion to convince three to six year olds they built a copying machine that could create perfect replicas of any item. When offered a choice between their favorite toy or an apparently exact copy, the majority of the children favored the original. They were often horrified at the idea of taking home a copy.

Our attachment with our material possessions isn't something we grow out of. Rather, it persists into adulthood while becoming ever more elaborate. For example, consider the huge value placed on items that have been owned by celebrities. It's as if the buyers believed the objects they'd purchased were somehow imbued with the essence of their former celebrity owners. This is why we're also more reluctant to part ways with family heirlooms, which help us feel connected to lost loved ones.

Although our feelings of ownership emerge early in life, culture also plays an influential role. Researchers recently discovered the Hadza people of Norther Tanzania, who are isolated from modern culture, don't exhibit the endowment effect. They live in an egalitarian society where almost everything is shared.

Now, technology is rapidly making it feasible to acquire electronic copies of books, music, and movies, taking away the physical aspect of ownership. It remains to be seen where this can lead to the demise of physical books, and music, but this still seems premature.

Many will admit, there is something satisfying about holding an object in our hands, whether a book or a record, and calling it our own.

The Psychology Behind Why We Can't Throw Things Away | Tech & Science
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