Guest Post - Trouble tossing your old things? Blame the Endowment Effect

It’s summertime. Your family has chosen today to finally tackle that mountain of stuff that’s been slowly filling the garage over the years. The work starts smoothly enough - no one wants to hang on to old bank statements. But then you notice something happening. You’ve started reasoning why you should keep clothing that you haven’t worn in years because, seriously, who wears Hammer Pants anymore? Your son bursts into tears because you tossed his water wings despite that fact that he’s now on the swim team. Your daughter loudly demands her teeball set back; the one that broke after she started on her path to the All State player she is today.

What’s going on? Why is it so hard to part with things no one’s used in years?

Blame the Endowment Effect.

Endowment Effect

The Endowment Effect, coined in 1980 by economist Richard Thaler, is the act of ascribing greater value to something by virtue of you owning it. Here’s the gist: you could dump your neighbor’s old clothes in a donation box and never look back. But yours? You’re already breaking a sweat thinking about parting with these pants you haven’t looked at since people listened to cassette tapes. That’s the Endowment Effect at work.

The effect has evolved over time, originally pinned on a person’s innate aversion to loss, a sort of “I’ll miss it when it’s gone” idea. More recently, however, researchers have looked more closely and discovered that our attachment is due more to a perceived link between the object and the self. In other words, “I own this, it’s part of me, and therefore it must be good.” Indeed, sometimes simply touching the object can trigger enough of a sense of ownership to get the Endowment Effect going.

Looking deeper, researchers found that the link becomes stronger the longer you own the object, meaning those Soviet-era pants in your hand may need their own coup before they can break free.

So we’ve established the cause. But your mission today is to clean the garage of things you objectively know that you can do without. What techniques can you use to do an end run around human nature and convert that cluttered space into the cavern of tidiness that you want?

Here are some ideas:

  • Keep only the items that spark joy. By now you’ve heard about Marie Kondo and her decluttering cleanup method. Pick up each item in your pile - yes, you’ll have to touch it - and decide if it’s really something that’s a joy to have around. If not, it’ll be easier to part with.
  • Do you say yes when you ask yourself if you really need something? Try asking yourself a different question instead. Imagine you’re seeing this item for the first time and ask yourself how much effort you’d really put into acquiring it now. If going to the store or even to Amazon is too much, then it’s a good bet you can toss it.
  • Find out the real value and see if you’d pay it. This can really help you gauge how much you value that item. Go to Amazon, eBay, or Bonanza and find it or something similar. Would you spend what it’s worth to get it? If you don’t think you’d buy it, try selling it!

Cleaning out your own stuff doesn’t have to be a relentless fight against yourself. A simple change of perspective may be all it takes for you to give yourself the space you need.

Ben Oatis is a freelance writer based in Connecticut with over 10 years of experience as a technical writer for global tech companies. In addition to writing about technology, he also covers politics, lifestyle, and health and nutrition. He can be reached at