HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Saturday, October 8, 2005

Clutter And Evolution

Is your house a mess?  Do you keep old notes, letters, newspaper clippings and more?  Well, according to a recent study in the Royal Economic Society's Economic Journal, there is a good reason - you cannot help it - it's hardwired!  The Times (UK) Online reports,

If your home is cluttered because you cannot bring yourself to throw anything away, do not worry. This attachment to the things we own is fundamental to our survival, according to a team of economists.

The observation that the things we own are more valuable to us than to other people simply because they are ours is widely acknowledged by economists, who call it the “endowment effect”. This holds that people demand more money to give up an object than they are willing to spend to acquire it, and explains why most of us would not swap our favourite sweater, for example, with something of equal value. Economists are interested in and puzzled by the endowment theory because it goes against classical economic theory of people behaving entirely rationally where money is concerned.

Now, three economics professors think that they have found a Darwinian explanation for why it exists. According to Steffen Huck, of University College London, Georg Kirchsteiger, of the University Libre de Bruxelles, and Jorg Oechssler, of the University of Heidelberg, our emotional attachment to our possessions is “hard-wired” into our brains to help us to survive.

They cite an experiment in which every other student in a class was given a mug bearing their university’s logo. Students who had been given mugs could then sell them to those who had not received one. They found that sellers demanded much more for the mugs than buyers were willing to pay. In other words, owners seemed to like the mugs more than buyers who did not have one, demonstrating a near- instantaneous endowment effect.

Not sure this explanation will serve as an excuse for not cleaning up my closet, but it might be worth a try. . . .  [bm]

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