Duke University professor Dan Ariely tries to explain it in his 2008 book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (Harper, 2008, ISBN-13 9780061353239). He has distilled three quirks of human nature that keep us attached to the things in our lives.
“The first quirk…is that we fall in love with what we already have,” writes Ariely. We have sentimental associations with our possessions, remembering who gave them to us and what we did with them. The link between the memories and the items makes it hard to give them away.
“Our second quirk is that we focus on what we may lose, rather than what we may gain.” Aversion to loss is one of the strongest motivators of human behavior, according to Ariely. We gladly give up new things to keep from losing what we have. We just can’t stand the thought of it.
And why do we think that we will get top dollar for our VW van or our collection of National Geographic magazines? “The third quirk is that we assume other people will see the transaction from the same perspective as we do.” Apparently, we have a very hard time imagining that others can’t see the precious nature of our possessions.
Other twists on attachment include the so-called “IKEA effect.” That is to say, “the more work you put into something, the more ownership you feel for it,” writes Ariely. My particle-board bookcase. My non-standard loft bed. My hand-made sweater…so you had better love it.
Finally, we easily imagine how sweet something will be when we finally get our mitts on it. According to Ariely, “We can begin to feel ownership even before we own something.” The problem? Our brains feel entitled to new things…even before we possess them.
So we get attached: to things, people, and even ideas. To give them up causes very real grief. Such is the “predictably irrational” nature of our brains. And, as Ariely writes, “There is no known cure for the ills of ownership.”