Why do people brag about their possessions

Minimalism: is less more?

"Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?" Janis Joplin sang in 1970. All of her friends would eventually drive Porsches, the song says - a biting comment on the attempt to gain reputation and happiness by consuming expensive status symbols to get. Mercedes later used the song in several TV commercials, despite the ironic message. The blues singer was not immune to the material temptations herself, by the way: She drove a brightly painted Porsche convertible.

What we call our own shapes our identity. William James (1842–1910), one of the forefathers of modern psychology, recognized this. For him, the self was not limited to body and mind alone. Rather, it encompassed everything that surrounds a person: family and friends as well as clothing and lands. This "expanded self" is revealed when people suddenly lose all of their belongings. In 1991 researchers studied the psychological consequences of a devastating fire in California. Most of the things that fell victim to the flames were reimbursed by insurance companies. Nevertheless, many people reported real identity crises. "The fire took everything I had, but also everything I was," said one interviewee. "We became orphans with no memory," added two women. The new clothes were not like the old ones, they had sad colors, they complained. "I became a different person," said one of them. "The earlier one was lost in the fire."

  1. So-called materialists believe that one's well-being depends heavily on acquisition and ownership. In the long term, experiences make you more satisfied than material purchases.

  2. People expect the minimalism trend to turn away from consumer culture and a healthier psyche. But this supposed alternative to the logic of consumption is also defined by the "correct" amount of property.

  3. The problem of an affluent society is not that people pay too much but too little attention to the things that surround them, believes the economist Russell Belk.

This article is included in Spectrum Compact, Mine! - Why less is sometimes more

People seem to intuitively categorize things into their own and foreign. Personal possessions apparently enjoy a kind of special cognitive treatment - even if they are actually only minor odds and ends. The British psychologist David J. Turk and his team were able to show this in an imaging study. 19 test subjects solved tasks on a small monitor while they were lying in the brain scanner. According to a predefined color code, they should drag images of supermarket goods into one of two virtual shopping baskets, for example apples, socks or pencils. One of the two baskets supposedly belonged to them, the other to the experimenter - but this assignment had no real meaning. In a subsequent memory test, the participants had to quickly decide whether the items presented came from their or someone else's basket. Although the scenario was highly artificial, there was a clear difference: the subjects remembered products from their personal shopping cart better than others. While they were looking at photos of their “own” goods, a network of areas was also active in which parts of the prefrontal cortex and the left insular cortex apparently play a key role. Turk and his colleagues suspect that self-referential information, such as property, is processed in these regions. How exactly this takes place, however, is still unclear.

What is ours seems more valuable

Our belongings are dear to us. Sometimes so much that they lead us to make unreasonable decisions. This can be seen in the so-called possession effect: people value a good as more valuable when it belongs to them. The well-known US behavioral economist Richard Thaler observed this phenomenon as a student. One of his lecturers had bought a good wine for five dollars. A few years later, his dealer offered to buy the bottle back for $ 100. The professor refused - even though he had never spent more than $ 35 on a bottle of wine. The sheer fact that the bottle was his made it more valuable to him, Thaler concluded. Later, the researcher was able to prove his assumption in several studies: Those who want to sell something often expect significantly higher prices than they would be willing to pay for it themselves. This contradicts classical economic theories, according to which people act rationally and only maximize their own profit. Obviously property does something to us that cannot be explained by the pure monetary value of the thing.

This is especially true for things that are closely related to one's personal biography. The consumer researcher Rosellina Ferraro from the University of Maryland in the USA asked test subjects to recall objects that were once lost. How much the test subjects were affected by the loss at the time was not just a matter of monetary value. They mourned particularly intensely for things that they linked to their self-worth. Ferraro therefore calls such possessions identity markers. They help us to construct our own self. These can be valuables, such as the wedding ring or family jewelry. Sometimes our hearts are attached to things that would be completely useless to others: The holey sweater tells of the first great love, the old Interrail ticket is evidence of the train journey across Europe. In extreme cases, people can no longer part with their possessions at all: Messies collect objects until their apartment overflows. Their property overwhelms them immensely, but they do not want to give it up at all. It is estimated that around two to five percent of adults suffer from compulsive hoarding. In many cases, another mental illness is behind it, such as an anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. But even for people without messie syndrome, large tidying up and throwing away things in their own household are often tedious and painful. All of these things are tainted with memories of one's past - of earlier versions of oneself.

Tell me what you got and i'll tell you who you are? Research seems to confirm this truism. A curious example: In an experiment published in 2014 under the title “Not only dogs are similar to their owners, cars do it too”, test subjects were actually able to assign vehicles to their respective owners, who were only presented with a portrait, by accident.