Clutter or Stuff?

We should not live with attachment to abundance.

Posted Dec 10, 2020

In the Fall of 2012, I gave the invited keynote speaker at the annual international conference for ICD—the Institute of Challenging Disorganization. These are professional organizers helping clients organize their possessions and declutter. Think of them as “clutter coaches.”

It was wonderful meeting these professionals. I met a colleague who became a professional and personal friend: Dr. Catherine Roster, professor of marketing and consumer psychology at the University of New Mexico's Anderson School of Management in Albuquerque, NM. Dr. Roster is considered one of the leading scholars in consumer disposal decision processes. I presented again at ICD in 2014 and 2019.

At the 2012 ICD conference, we decided to collaborate, beginning a new area of psychological scholarship, clutter: an overabundance of possessions that collectively creates chaotic and disorderly living spaces, affecting the quality of one’s life. Our first publication (Roster, Ferrari, & Jurkat, 2016), which gained international attention, examined one’s sense of home, life satisfaction, procrastination, and clutter with over 1,300 U.S. and Canadian adult women and men. Clutter had a negative impact on psychological home and subjective well-being; the more clutter, the less life satisfaction people reported. Amazing—unlike what we hear over and over in our culture—more, more, more stuff does not make us happy or give us joy.   

By the way, we found only 50 men in that large 1,300 sample of adults. I asked several declutter coaches if there was a gender difference, given the sharp discrepancy. They said, "Oh, no—both women and men have clutter problems." But more women than men seek professional assistance to declutter. Men consider their stuff as their “toys” and not clutter.

In July 2017, I hosted at DePaul University, in Chicago, IL, USA, the 10th Biennial Conference on the Study of Procrastination, and we organized a session on "Procrastination and Clutter." That session led to an invited themed journal issue (Ferrari, 2018). We were joined in these studies by then-DePaul psychology graduate students, Matthew Pardo and Kendall Crum.  

Among the papers in the 2018 themed journal issue was our paper with 346 emerging adults who reported clutter, procrastination, self-identifying with their possessions, place attachment, and psychological home (Ferrari, Roster, Crum, & Pardo, 2018). We found procrastination tendencies related only to clutter. Clutter in one’s living space, negative emotions, and impaired social ability all predicted high procrastination. Taken together, chronic procrastinators reported too much clutter (possessions or stuff), which interferes with a strong quality of their lives. 

In another study exploring decisional procrastination (indecision) with emerging adults and community samples (Ferrari, Pardo, & Crum, 2018), participants reported measures on their character (life satisfaction, meaningful life, and need for cognition), context (place attachment, sense of community, and psychological home), and “cross-over” character/context factors (self-identity with possessions, people/thing orientation, and clutter), providing an ecological understanding of indecision. Decisional procrastinators reported too much clutter (stuff) interfering with a positive quality of life, and related to character over context and cross-over, ecological variable.

In a related paper published in this special issue, Dr. Roster and I (Ferrari & Roster, 2018) focused on decisional and behavioral procrastination and clutter across different age groups: college students, young emerging adults, and older community sample adults. We found that clutter problems increasingly contributed to a significant decrease in life satisfaction as adults aged. The implication is that procrastination tendencies may enable a lifelong pattern of responses to one’s environment that become increasingly maladaptive throughout the life cycle—simultaneously delaying disposal decisions.

DePaul psychology doctoral student Kendall Crum and I (Crum & Ferrari, 2019a) surveyed psychological home, place attachment, and life satisfaction among a national sample of women who also reported clutter lifestyle problems. Analyses revealed that psychological home was a significant predictor of life satisfaction over and above resource (i.e., annual household income, homeownership status, and relationship status) and contextual (i.e., type of dwelling, number of people in the household, and years in residence) variables. Clutter mediated the relationship between home and life satisfaction.

In other words, among diverse samples, clutter may be a factor toward low life satisfaction. In a separate study with young emerging adults (Crum & Ferrari, 2019b), participants commented about their perception of psych home, clutter, and person/thing orientation. The results indicated that the best predictors of one's psychological home (independent of social desirability) were person orientation and lower perceptions of clutter in their physical space. People are more important than things to one's self-identity and conceptualization of home: Too many things/items negatively impacted a sense of home.

Summary: So What?

Why, when we look at our own clutter, do we call it “my stuff,” but when we view the clutter of others, we call it “your sh*t”? 

I think the answer to this question is that we see our personal possessions as an extension of ourselves, of our identity. If we lose something we value, we are upset and angered, but if someone steals that same valued object from us, we feel violated and vulnerable. Within consumer psychology, “involuntary possession disposition” (as opposed to voluntary, where a person makes a choice to get rid of items) have been explored when natural disasters (e.g., hurricane, tornado, floods, wildfires) wipe out or destroy all possessions. We hear people say, “We lost everything, but we have our lives.” The loss of our stuff is an area of study we should continue to explore.

There seems to be something about “possessions gone wild” (clutter). Western culture tells us—buy more. But psych research shows—overabundance will not make you happy. What Dr. Roster and I accomplished, with opening a discourse and research on “clutter,” is novel. But links to possession meanings for self-identity are well established by scholars.

Hold onto relationships, not relics. If your family does not want your “old dishes”—give them to a family whose home was destroyed by wildfires or disasters. Re-gift gently used items to others who can use them. Hold onto the memory, not the materials.

References

     Crum, K.P., & Ferrari, J.R. (2019a). Psychological home, clutter, and place attachment on life satisfaction among women of color: Home is beyond physical space.  Journal of Contemporary Research in the Social Sciences, 1, 87 – 96.

     Crum, K.P., & Ferrari, J.R. (2019b). Toward an understanding of psychological home and clutter with emerging adults: Relationships over relics. North American Journal of Psychology, 21, 45-56.

     Ferrari, J.R. (2018).  Introduction to “procrastination, clutter, and hoarding.” Special Issue, Current Psychology, 37, 424-425.

     Ferrari, J.R., & Pardo, M.A. Crum, K.P. (2018). Decisional procrastination: Assessing characterological and contextual variables around indecision. Special Issue, Current Psychology, 37, 436-440.

     Ferrari, J. R. & Roster, C.A. (2018). Delaying to dispose: An investigation of the relationship between procrastination types and clutter across generational cohorts. Special Issue, Current Psychology, 37, 426-431.

     Ferrari, J.R., Roster, C.A, Crum, K. P., & Pardo, M.A. (2018). Procrastinators and clutter: An ecological view of living with excessive stuff. Special Issue, Current Psychology, 37,

     Roster, C.A., Ferrari, J.R., & Jurkat, M.P. (2016). The dark side of home: Assessing possession 'clutter' on subjective well-being.  Journal of Environmental Psychology, 46, 32-41.