The endowment effect

A very helpful concept to understand when decluttering your home is something psychologists refer to as the “endowment effect”. It explains why you may sometimes feel irrationally attached to things.

Woman buying a new jacket

It’s mine!

There you are, clutter clearing an area of your home, and you come across an object that has no real value and even though you no longer use it (or perhaps have never used it), you feel reluctant to let it go. Everything about it screams at you that it is clutter, but somehow you don’t feel able to throw it away.

Another time you can see this is when you buy new clothes. Suppose you buy a new jacket. Before you bought it, it was just another jacket hanging in a shop and meant nothing to you, but as soon as you own it, something changes. Now it’s YOUR jacket. It now means more to you than it did before. Even if you take it home and never wear it, it’s yours. Even if every time you see it, you realize you wasted your money because it’s not the right jacket, it’s still yours, and so you feel reluctant to part with it.

Or at least some people do. Psychologists have observed that most people feel more attachment to an item they own than to something they do not own, and some people feel this more than others.

In behavioural economics, this leads to something known as the “endowment effect” or “divestiture aversion”, where people place more value on an item they own than one they do not, even if they have only owned it for a few minutes. This is because humans are hard-wired to be loss-averse, and letting go of something that is owned can trigger feelings of loss.

Clutter clearing made easy

So here’s something you can do next time you come across such an item while clutter clearing your home. Ask yourself this simple question:

Before I discovered I had this item, how much effort would I have been willing to put in to obtaining one just like it?

This gives you a completely different perspective, and more often than not, you realize it’s not something you would put any time or effort into acquiring. It’s something that happens to have come into your life at some point and is now just taking up space. This change in standpoint makes it much easier to let it go.

Copyright © Karen Kingston 2013, updated 2021


Related articles
Why we get so attached to things
The science of ownership

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fourth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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5 Responses to The endowment effect

  1. Oh dear…I thought I was a lifelong, dyed-in-the-wool minimalist and that the endowment effect would never significantly affect me—but now my life is changing irreversibly, with many loved ones dying and major, permanent, uprooting life changes descending right and left without mercy. It’s like a tsunami. Things I could have easily parted with not that long ago (and was planning to part with) now feel like precious 3-D diary pages or gilt-framed portraits of my 60+ year life. When I behold an object I can see a movie in my mind of the time I received it, the person who gave it to me and the wonderful memories associated with it in connection with the people, times, and places I’ve loved and lost…including the parts of myself that no longer exist. This is PAINFUL instead of joyful! I never thought I would feel this way. I need to move house in the relatively near future and was planning on cutting back even more on my possessions. Now I don’t know what to do. Perhaps I should just give myself some time to adjust? This is so unlike me…and very humbling to say the least. Might it be an age-related issue or stage of life? Can you point me in a helpful direction, Karen? I’m lost and swirling…

    1. Hi Pixie – If you live near one of the professional clutter clearing practitioners I have trained, I’m sure you will find it very helpful to book a session, or a series of sessions, to help you with this process. If that’s not possible, the best I can recommend is to take my Fast Track Clutter Clearing online course, where you will have both my support but and also the support and camaraderie of other participants as they sort through their clutter in the 21 days of the course.

  2. I have two towers of compact discs, i.e CDs. I don’t, as a rule, listen to any of them anymore, but I could not throw them away either, since they have been the target of some many prunings, trimmings, shopping rounds, moves and emotions. While they’re “worthless” by today’s standards, they fit so snugly into their storing spots that for now, I won’t chuck them.

  3. This is very interesting and I can definitely relate to it. Thanks for making it a more conscious part of my decluttering routine.

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