If you’re trying to declutter your home, but finding the process difficult because you’re emotionally attached to many of your possessions, try this simple technique: take photos of those items.
According to a new study, people who take photos of their sentimental possessions are up to a third more likely to donate those items to charity.
“We all have at least one, but, in many cases, multiple items that we hold onto — even though we no longer use them — because the items still have sentimental value,” said Karen Winterich, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of marketing at Pennsylvania State University, in a statement. “These items have some type of meaning that says, ‘this is who I am’ and/or ‘this is who I was,’ so we just don’t want to let this stuff go.”
As Winterich and her colleagues point out in the introduction to their study, previous research has shown that people treat particularly positive personal memories — of an anniversary dinner, for example, or of a travel adventure — as “assets to be protected.” Items associated with these events act as memory markers or retrieval cues, and people quickly ascribe sentimental value to them — value that is usually much greater than the functional or material value of the objects.
As a result, people find it difficult to let go of the objects, even to a good cause, such as a charity. Indeed, losing one of these items can lead to a diminished sense of self.
A series of experiments
For their study, Winterich and her colleagues launched a holiday donation drive, with all items benefiting Goodwill, in six large sorority halls at Penn State. The halls housed 797 upper classwomen, many of whom would soon be graduating. In three of the halls, the campaign slogan was “Don’t Pack Up Your Sentimental Clutter. … Just Keep a Photo of It, Then Donate.” In the other three halls (the “control” arm of the study), the slogan was “Don’t Pack Up Your Sentimental Clutter, Just Collect the Items, Then Donate.”
A total of 1,146 items were donated during the campaign: 613 from students who were prompted to photograph their possessions and 533 from the others. An analysis of these differences revealed that students who were encouraged to take a photo contributed between 15 and 34 percent more items to the Goodwill campaign than their peers who were simply asked to donate.
In follow-up experiments, which used a more diverse group of participants, Winterich and her colleagues determined that taking photographs of sentimental items before giving them away helps mitigate the diminished sense of self that people often feel when they no longer have the items in their home.
They also found that people are more likely to donate sentimental items when they can see a positive disconnect between their current and future selves — for example, when empty nesters can envision themselves traveling more or enjoying the simplicity of a downsized home.
Interestingly, however, the study found that taking photos of sentimental items before selling them did not have the same effect as for donating them.
“We’re not saying that it would never work for selling, but these sentimental goods, which hold memories and our identities, are almost perceived as sacred when they become associated with money,” said Winterich.
Limitations and implications
The study has several limitations. The experiment involving the charity campaign involved only women students at one university. It’s not clear if other, more diverse groups would respond similarly. Furthermore, most of the other experiments in this study were done in a lab and involved hypothetical donations. Those findings might change if the experiments were conducted in a “real world” setting.
Still, if you’re having difficulty de-cluttering because of emotional attachments to your possessions, you might want to give photographing them a try.
“These findings can aid consumers who are overcome with clutter, an increasing consumer problem, and/or who may be forced to dispose of some possessions during life transitions,” such as divorce, retirement or downsizing to a smaller house, Winterich and her colleagues write.
“Consumers struggling to part with goods with sentimental value but wanting to minimize the clutter in their home or storage areas and give new life to their possessions should take a photo, write a note, or otherwise document their memories associated with the good so they can part with the good without losing their identify,” they add.
And think how much easier life will be for your future self.