Wharton’s Jonah Berger delves into the psychology of hoarding and how we get attached to possessions we don’t use. Why is it so hard to clean out the attic or delete the extra photos on your phone? This episode is part of a series on getting a “Fresh Start” this new year.


Researching the Psychology of Hoarding

Dan Loney: Well, there are many things that we buy or we acquire that we love and hold onto for a long time, even maybe after their usefulness has passed. But then there are also instances where people will acquire something and they don’t really use it. Yet for some reason, they still hang onto it. We wanted to find out why that is the case.

Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School has done research into this, and he joins us right now to talk about it. Jonah, interesting topic that you’ve looked into. What was it that piqued your interest in the first place?

Jonah Berger: You know, I think we’ve all had this personal experience where we have something lying around our house that we don’t use. And in some cases, it makes a lot of sense. Maybe it’s something someone gave us that we wish we had a use for, but we don’t. Right? You know, we thought we would play guitar. Someone nicely gave us a guitar, and we don’t end up using it. Or maybe it’s a family heirloom. Maybe it’s our grandmother’s china that we personally don’t love, but we [use on] fancy occasions, or it reminds us of her so we keep it around.

And those things make sense. But there’s a third class of things that makes a little bit less sense. Maybe it’s a bottle of wine that wasn’t that special to begin with. Maybe it’s an item that we got that wasn’t that important to us at the beginning, but somehow we end up holding onto it and never using it. The wine wasn’t that special at the beginning, but now it feels really special, and we don’t drink it. Or the shirt we were saving for that special occasion, and it never really arose, and now we never end up wearing it. And so we wondered why might that be, and could we understand consumer behavior more broadly by understanding this particular situation?

Loney: So take us through how you actually did that. Because I’d find that interesting, just how you go about that process.

Berger: Yeah. I think there’s often products that we buy that aren’t that special to start with. Maybe it’s a bottle of wine. It’s a kind of normal bottle of wine. Or maybe it’s a shirt or a dress that’s maybe a little nicer than what we would normally buy, but not that nice. And these things start off as rather normal, right? Rather normal, ordinary possessions. But if an occasion comes around where we don’t end up using it, maybe because we felt it wasn’t a perfectly good fit, or maybe we just wanted to save it for something else, what’s interesting is now that thing that didn’t start so special becomes a little bit more special. We go, “Well, hold on. If I didn’t use it for that last occasion, maybe it’s worth saving for something a little bit better.” And so the next time comes around, and we have an opportunity to use it. But then we might be likely to save it again. And suddenly we go through this specialness spiral, where something that started rather ordinary becomes a little bit more extraordinary, and we end up saving it for special occasions and not using it in ordinary ones. And something that wasn’t that special to begin with becomes a lot more special than we intended.

Loney: This isn’t just a normal emotional attachment to something, is it?

Berger: You know, certain things we start with an emotional attachment towards. Our grandmother’s china might be something where we have a strong emotional attachment at the beginning, and that doesn’t change. What I think is neat here is how the items change through our process of nonconsumption. Right? It didn’t start out that special. Yet by not using it and not using it and not using it — and not just ignoring it, but almost consciously not using it. Deciding, “Is this the right occasion to wear that new pair of shoes? Maybe I’ll hold off.”

I’ll tell a personal story. Many years ago, I was on the academic job market, and I got a suit for a big job interview, as many people do when they’re on the job market. And I thought this suit was really special and I loved it and I wore it for the academic job market. But then I didn’t wear it soon after, because I wanted to save it for something. And then months went by and months went by and years went by. And I was saving it and saving it. And eventually this thing went out of style. And it wasn’t because it was super special to begin with, or super meaningful to begin with. It was more that I didn’t use it, and it became more special, and eventually became so old that I didn’t want to use it anymore.

And so I think a lot of times, we end up with things around our home that didn’t have meaning at the beginning but get it through this process of nonconsumption.

The Psychology of Hoarding Physical vs. Digital Things

Loney: How much, then, does this to a degree explain some of the elements of hoarding that we see out there?

Berger: I think it’s certainly the case. And it’s very interesting in today’s day and age, the way we think about hoarding. My grandmother was a little bit of a hoarder herself and would keep things around because she thought someone would wear it or someone would use it. And in today’s day and age, in some ways we have a little less of that. Right? In some ways, we have digital items and so we have less physical hoarding. But the same thing happens, right? We get a gift for the holidays. It’s not perfect for us, but we keep it around. We end up putting it in the closet. It goes to the back of the closet, things go in front of it, and we end up not seeing it anymore and soon we get something similar. We have something else that takes its place.

And so I think there are two types of hoarding that are interesting in today’s day and age. First the physical hoarding, but also the digital hoarding we have. Think about how many photos we have, or files we might have stored on Dropbox. We’re worried we’re going to need them someday, so we keep them around, and so the storage we need to have gets larger and larger, even though it’s not physical storage.

Loney: I’ll throw in one for myself. I mean, thinking about all the photos that I have collected of my kids, of them playing soccer, or different events they’ve been in. And I have multiples of each one of them. I could probably go through my phone and eliminate probably at least half of the photos that I have on there, but I don’t do it. And maybe for me, part of that is an element of time, and actually taking the time to do that.

Berger: But notice the more things we have, whether they are physical things or digital things, the more time it takes to cull those things and so the more daunting the task becomes. If every time, every week or every month, we went through our photos and got rid of the ones where we took a picture of our pocket, or we took two of the kids at the soccer game that are identical. If we culled those photos, the task wouldn’t be so difficult, because then every month we’d only have a month to deal with. But if it goes month on month on month, just like we have that attic room in our house or apartment where we store things that we don’t need, eventually it becomes harder and harder to find things and harder and harder to cull it. And so we end up having more and more stuff.

Loney: So how much is the recognition of having these things a challenge? Or maybe people don’t have enough of a recognition that they’re actually doing some of these things.

Berger: You know, I think it’s important in some cases, right? And not everyone has this problem all the time. Some of the listeners here are probably saying, “What do you mean? I get a bottle of wine, I drink it right away.” Or, you know, “I get a new shirt, I wear it at the first possible occasion.” I think we have to be careful, though, once things that were not originally special start becoming overly special, if you will. And it becomes useful to think about strategies to mitigate that, right? Saying, “Hey, I’m going to wear this for New Year’s.” Or, “I’m going to wear this for my birthday.” Or, “I’m going to drink this bottle of wine the next time we go out to dinner.” Setting a specific occasion where you decide that usage is appropriate helps us use these things and move on. And the same thing can be true in our digital world as well.

How to Improve at Managing Your Digital Space

Loney: In the end, do you think there are reasons why people end up having these attachments, and maybe don’t even realize it?

Berger: You know, emotional attachment isn’t always bad, right? It’s nice to have cherished photos of our family members, or things that our kids made that we keep around the house, even though we don’t necessarily need them. It’s nice to have those emotional attachments. I think the challenge is when you have so many of those things that they get in the way of our well-being. Our ability to find the things we do want. Our ability to overconsume and buy things we don’t need. And so in those situations, it’s important to figure out ways to mitigate it, and to increase our happiness as a result.

Loney: So then if we have this as a component of our digital lives right now, how much then do you think this potentially continues on and enhances as you move down the road? Because we are more and more connected to our digital selves every day whether it be our phones, our computers. We’re doing this interview on Zoom. It’s just become a massive part of our lives.

Berger: And certainly, right? I mean, technologies are tools, and those tools can be very helpful. Those tools can make things easier. They can save us time. They can help us work well on vacation and get something done if we need to. But they can also be detrimental, right? They can interrupt us in ways we might not want. They can lead us to accumulate digital files that we don’t necessarily need. And so I think just like our offline tools, we need to manage our online tools as well.

Loney: And I guess also we talk a lot about the elements of how different they are from generation to generation.

Berger: Certainly.

Loney: I guess it’s going to be very interesting to watch how this digital component plays in with younger generations right now.

Berger: Certainly. I think about this a lot when I think about a physical office, right? You used to go into someone’s physical office and they had shelves and shelves of physical books. And how many people have gotten rid of those books? Academics used to have journals. Most people don’t get physical journals anymore. And so, what is an office space for? Do people need as large offices? What do you put in them? How do you think about how they represent yourself? A lot of interesting transitions are being made. And certainly, age plays a role. The younger you are when you’ve been introduced to these technologies the less likely you may be to have physical things around, and the more comfortable you may be with a digital-only world.

Loney: This sounds like it’s a little bit of an ever-evolving type of research that you’re doing because of all the dynamics at play. But what do you think are the takeaways at least now from what you delved into, in this topic?

Berger: I think we need to think about managing our possessions, whether they are physical or digital. I think, as we talked about earlier, it’s important to have meaning in our lives. And it’s important to be emotionally attached to things in our lives. That said, sometimes that can become overwhelming. Ordinary items can become perceived treasures, even when they’re not. And we can imbue them with so much meaning that we fill our spaces with things we’re never using. And so if we find ourselves living in an overly cluttered space, whether in our physical world or our digital world, understanding why we may have ended up there and figuring out how to manage it becomes key.