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Why Decluttering Is Hard

Retailers’ use of consumer psychology makes it tough to let go.

Key points

  • Consumer psychology studies all activities associated with the purchase, use, and disposal of goods and services.
  • People are 30 times more likely to try a brand that they believe has strong emotional, identity, social, or functional benefits.
  • A study says that decluttering could almost halve the amount of housework in the average home.
Source: Hispanolistic/iStock

It’s not exactly a secret that a large swathe of humanity finds it difficult to declutter. It’s why every organizer has a decluttering method and there are bestselling books on the subject. Marie Kondo’s method is to get rid of items that don’t “spark joy.” Oprah’s organizing guru, Peter Walsh, has a “Let It Go” flow chart to guide people on rooting out “malignant” possessions from worthy items.

One would assume shedding malignant possessions that don’t spark joy would be as instinctual as relieving oneself upon waking up in the morning. But it’s not. The National Soap and Detergent Association claims a 2019 study found getting rid of clutter would eliminate 40 percent of housework in the average home. Yet the clutter remains. Organizers give myriad reasons for why this is so. But none of them get to the heart of the matter.

The publishing world produces a steady stream of organizing books that teach people how to throw out useless possessions, a concept most two-year-olds grasp, because nobody has ever truly answered the “why” question: Why is decluttering is so often a Herculean task? But there is an answer. It lies in consumer psychology.

Control Is Subjective

While difficulty with decluttering is a multilayered problem, the root goes back to the activity of acquiring things in the first place: consumption. When consumers interact with a store in person or online, their activity and decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. There are a lot of people working hard to figure out how to get people to acquire things, a.k.a. future clutter.

Consumer psychology or consumer behavior is the social science marketers use to figure out how to better separate consumers from their money in exchange for goods. They try to address the consumer’s core needs: control, pursuit of happiness, identity, and social belonging. According to social psychologist Erica Carranza, Ph.D., vice president of consumer psychology at Chadwick Martin Bailey in a Forbes 2020 article, consumer behavior is about the marriage between motivation and ability (i.e., control). Next, retailers try to spark positive emotions (e.g., pursuit of happiness).

Carranza says that people like to maximize positive emotions (e.g., joy) and minimize negative ones (e.g., guilt). Underlying this all is the degree to which these emotions are positive or negative and how much physical energy is associated with each. The sweet spot for retailers tends to be when purchases instill positive consumer feelings with lots of energy behind them. This is when consumers are the most likely to buy.

The other two components of consumer behavior are personal identity, which is tied up in self-esteem, and then social belonging. Charity isn’t the only reason TOMS shoes used to donate a pair of shoes for every pair a customer bought and now dedicate a third of profits to Grassroots Good. Most consumers enjoy having a charitable self-image and a feeling of being a part of a like-minded group.

“People are thirty-times more likely to try a brand if they expect it to deliver strong emotional, identity, social, or functional benefits,” Carranza says. Retailers build marketing strategies around giving consumers just this notion so that they’re 30 times more likely to buy their product. Ironically, the moment when a consumer feels most in control—purchasing—is just the end game of a process controlled by the retailer.

Deconstruct Consumer Psychology to Declutter

The act of decluttering is the antonym to retailer-guided consumption. It’s a marketer’s nightmare filled to the brim with negative emotions like guilt, shame, and fear. When a consumer buys something because it elicited a positive feeling, improved self-esteem, and increased social belonging, then it’s easy to see why it might be difficult down the line to toss those happy vibes into the trash like yesterday’s news.

Decluttering is the opposite of the 30× rule. It is rejecting the emotional, identity, social, or functional benefits that at one point were the very reasons behind a purchase mixed with a dollop of buyer’s remorse thrown in for good measure. The act of decluttering an attic full of past purchases is therefore a lengthy exercise in anticipation of bad feelings and fighting against that 30× rule. It’s why so many avoid decluttering while others purchase books teaching them how to do it.

Take Back Control

The trick to decluttering—whether it’s a bedroom closet or a stuffed attic—is realizing that, while it is indeed an exercise in misery, it’s also an act of taking back control from retailers. There is, oddly, contentment to be found in emptiness or at least in an attic where a person can easily access things that do spark joy. Plus there's also the National Soap and Detergent Association's promise of less housework.


Danziger, P. N. (2020). Consumer Psychology Is the Only Constant in a Changing Retail Market. Jersey City, NJ: Forbes.

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