Why do we hold on to things we never use?

If you haven’t consumed the things piled up in your home over the last year by now, Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger says there’s a pretty good chance you never will. He’s the co-author of a recent study on why people buy things they don’t use and end up with piles of clutter. There are psychological components to clutter, but there are also implications for marketers who want consumers not only to buy their products, but also to use those products and hopefully come back for more.

Pile of holiday clutter including decorations and flatware on the floor of a dining room.

The paper is titled “How Nonconsumption Can Turn Ordinary Items into Perceived Treasures.” The authors conducted six experiments, with findings consistent across all all experiments, and explore a concept they call the “specialness spiral.”

The study grew from a casual, personal observation. “A number of years ago when I was on the job market, before I came to Wharton, I got myself a pair of interview shoes. I wore them for my interviews, but then I never wore them again. And it wasn’t because I didn’t like them. In fact, just the opposite. I loved them—so much so that I always passed up wearing them because I wanted to save them for the right occasion,” says Berger. “Through not using them, it changed how I saw these products.”

For the experiment, the researchers used a not-too-special item: A $12 bottle of wine. “For half the people, we asked them to ‘imagine you thought about using this bottle of wine while having dinner one night, but then you decided not to.’ What we found was really interesting. Just telling people, ‘Imagine you passed up using this once’—when they were given another opportunity to use it later on, they were more likely to pass it up again. The fact that they had forgone using it for one ordinary occasion made them forgo using it at a later occasion,” says Berger.

The researchers call the subsequent behavior and decisions the “specialness spiral.” Berger explains how this spiral grows: “You take an ordinary item and forgo using it once. Because of that, you start to see it as a little more special. But because you see it as a little more special, at the next opportunity to use it, you say, ‘Well, maybe this is not a good enough opportunity,’ so you pass up using it. It becomes a little more special.”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.