That’s Men: The real value of our possessions is in their emotional currency

Tue, Aug 20, 2013, 01:00

One day, a few weeks ago, I walked into a phone shop to ask an innocent question and walked out with a new Android smartphone and a two- year contract. My iPhone sat silently in my pocket, disembowelled of its sim card.

What surprised me then and since was the guilt I felt over deserting my iPhone for a rival.

The new phone does all the things I wanted, namely, good volume sound and a screen big enough to read websites on. But even now I sometimes feel a twinge for my iPhone and this, I reckon, is down to the “endowment effect”, as it’s called.

The endowment effect arises when we give personal meaning to possessions. Often this is why we hold on to stuff that has no intrinsic value. The iPhone was a source of interest and even wonder to me, and remains endowed with those qualities.

Emotional value
The first typewriter I ever bought is still sitting in my room. It’s a portable Imperial 200, the keys stick if you try to use them and I’ll never type anything on it again.

It has no intrinsic value whatsoever and probably belongs on a scrapheap somewhere. Still, the ivory keys are worn down by my typing over a good many years so I have endowed it with emotional value. This business of getting attached to stuff has very deep roots and goes back a long way.

A substantial proportion of the rows between small children are about possessions – children trying to take each other’s possessions or trying to hold on to their own.

In one experiment, children offered a duplicate of a favourite toy were horrified at the suggestion they might swap their own toy for it. The toy had been endowed with a value that the duplicate version just didn’t have.

Teenagers see their technological gadgets as an extension of themselves – so do I, as my iPhone story shows – and many people never forget the first car they owned. That car marked a passage to independence in the person’s journey through life; it was probably decorated with stickers and other items to personalise it, and it became an expression of personality.

Aversion to loss
The endowment effect may also drive our deep aversion to loss.

As every good negotiator knows – and as the Government is finding out – it is a lot easier to withhold a benefit in the first place than to give it and then take it away. That aversion to loss may even go back to the womb.

Birth is the first loss we suffer in our lives. The world will never be as secure again. The great psychologist William James stated more than a century ago that “A man’s Self is the sum total of all that he can call his.”

Do you own an Apple computer? Do you think that Apple logo on the lid gives you an edge over the PC brigade? Go on, admit it, you’re an Apple owner for God’s sake. You have endowed it with Mac magic.

The endowment effect also explains why the partner in a relationship who wants to get rid of stuff so often has their efforts frustrated by the other partner.

To the resisting partner, this stuff has been endowed with all sorts of sentimental meanings. That’s why, when they split up, they’ll fight over who gets the LP collection neither of them listens to any more.

All this is why it is a good thing that, some time after we die, an unsentimental person will take our treasured possessions (including that old iPhone that you kept because you “want to use the apps on it; they still work, you know”), stuff them into a black bag and fling them on to a skip.

Otherwise, nothing would ever get thrown out and the world would groan beneath the weight of “treasured” possessions.

For more on all this, see Dr Christian Jarrett’s article, The Psychology of Stuff and Things, in The Psychologist at

Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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