Need to Declutter? Try This, Science Says

Thrifting is one of my favorite hobbies. But if you do it as often as I do, you’ll end up with more stuff than you know what to do with, even if you got it all for a bargain.

That’s why I made some rules for myself. If I’m bringing new stuff into my house, some old stuff has to go. I’ve even started selling some of the valuable things I don’t need on eBay. I try to shop for others, too, so I can experience the fun of thrifting without feeling bad about having too much stuff.

Declutter pbs rewireBut sometimes getting rid of old stuff isn’t easy. I’ve been known to remove things from my own donation bags because I’ve changed my mind about letting them go. And there are a few pieces of clothing I’ll never get rid of, even though they don’t fit, because of their sentimental value—namely a western shirt and cowboy boots my mom wore during college in Texas, and a skirt that was my grandmother’s when she was a young woman.

But I’m going to have to try this trick researchers have found helps people let go of sentimental items they don’t use: Simply snapping a photo.

Take a picture, it’ll last longer

Have a pile of stuff you don’t think you need anymore but can’t seem to part with? Ask yourself this: Are you attached to the item, or the memory it evokes?

If it’s the memory that’s important to you, holding onto a photo of the item can stand in for the item itself.

Researchers at Penn State, the Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Austin asked people to take a photo of a sentimental item before they donated it. The folks who did take a photo before donating were able to let go of 15 to 35 percent more stuff than the ones who didn’t.

“We all have at least one, but, in many cases, multiple items that we hold onto—even though we no longer use them—because the items still have sentimental value,” said Karen Winterich, research fellow and associate professor of marketing at Penn State, in a news release about the study. “These items have some type of meaning that says, ‘this is who I am’ and/or ‘this is who I was,’ so we just don’t want to let this stuff go.

“The project got started when I realized I was keeping an old pair of basketball shorts just because they reminded me of beating a major rival basketball team in junior high. I didn’t want the shorts—I wanted the memory of winning that game and that’s what I thought of when I saw the shorts. A picture can easily mark that memory for me and I can donate the shorts so someone else can use them, which is even better.”

Are you your stuff?

Possessions, memories and identity are psychologically tied together, the researchers said. That’s what makes it hard to get rid of stuff that has sentimental value, even if we don’t use it. And it’s also why it feels so good to toss your ex’s things right after you break up.

Declutter pbs rewireUnfortunately, that’s at odds with a current trend in paring down belongings and wardrobes. A 2007 survey by eBay and Nielsen revealed that the average U.S. household is hanging onto about 50 unused items worth an estimated $3,100.

“What people really don’t want to give up is the memories associated with the item,” said Rebecca Reczek, an author of the study and an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University. “We found that people are more willing to give up these possessions if we offer them a way to keep the memory and the identity associated with that memory.”

Cha-ching? Not so fast

Running an online vintage or second-hand shop, wether its via eBay or Etsy or Depop or even Instagram, can make you a little cash on the side. Some folks are even able to wrangle it into a full-time career. But if you’re hoping to make money on your sentimental items, be forewarned that the photo brain hack doesn’t seem to work for selling the way it does for donating.

Snapping a photo of an item you’d like to make some money off of doesn’t make you any more likely to try to sell it.

“In one of the other studies, we looked at selling items—and this effect doesn’t hold for selling,” Winterich said. “We’re not saying that it would never work for selling, but these sentimental goods, which hold memories and our identities, are almost perceived as sacred when they become associated with money.”

My mom’s college duds and grandmother’s skirt will definitely remain on their special shelf in my closet, but, for less important items that have outstayed their welcome (I’m looking at you, high school T-shirts), it might be time for a photo shoot.

Want to:

Declutter your wardrobe?

Shop with the environment in mind?

Get rid of your parents’ stuff?

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Reach her via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @katecmoritz.