Scientists Just Figured Out How to Help You Toss Your Beloved Junk

By Charlie Gaeta | Jun 28, 2017 09:07 AM EDT

I've had an old basketball practice jersey since high school, over 20 years. It still fits, but I never wear it. The jersey is in great shape. I am not. I keep it because it reminds me of all the hard work it took to earn the jersey. It reminds me that I was once a varsity basketball player. The item has sentimental value. I can't bring myself to throw it away no matter how worthless it is as an actual garment. 

Many of us keep at least a few items for purely sentimental value. We move with them from apartment to apartment, they follow us from relationship to relationship. We sometimes even dispose of people that we have loved, but these sentimental objects remain with us.

A new study suggests that there is a way to preserve memories but still be able to get rid of the object that holds the memories. The secret turns out to be simple: Take a picture of it.

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"What people really don't want to give up is the memories associated with the item," said Rebecca Reczek, co-author of the study. "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."

Researchers conducted a field study at Penn State University. The study involved 797 students divided into two groups. At the end of a semester, the researchers advertised for a clothing drive. In one dormitory, the advertisements encouraged people to not pack up their sentimental belongings, but to take a picture of them and then donate the items to good will. In the control group of the study, researchers advertised in a separate dormitory that students should not pack up their sentimental belongings and they should simply donate them to good will. The advertisement for the control group did not mention taking a picture of your sentimental items as a way of preserving the memory of them.

At the end of the clothing drive, the researchers counted the donations from the group who were encouraged to take pictures of their items before donating them and compared those donations to the control group. The group that was encouraged to take pictures to preserve the memories of their items actually donated more items than the control group who were not encouraged to photograph their items before donating them. 

Similar numbers of students were exposed to both campaigns. 613 items were donated from the dorm that was encouraged to take pictures for preservation and 533 were donated from the control group. Taking a picture to preserve the memory of the item, allows you to let go of the item.

"It is not terribly surprising that we can keep the same memories alive just by taking a photo of these possessions, but it is not a natural behavior. It is something we have to train ourselves to do," Reczek said.

Researchers found that it is not just the memories that makes these things hard to part with but the identity they confer on us. When we get rid of these items, we are discarding some part of that identity. I definitely find that to be true about my old basketball practice jersey. The jersey is proof to myself that I was at one time an actual basketball player. Clearly I am not a basketball player now, just a journalist with an above-average jump shot. 

"These memories connected to possessions are a carrier for identity. It is this reluctance to give up a piece of our identity that is driving our reluctance to donate," Reczek said.

It is hoped that the use of "memory preservation" can be used to help people de-clutter their homes. It is also possible that this technique can be used to help people who are on the verge of becoming hoarders correct their behavior and de-clutter before their condition grows into an actual mental impairment that creates a health hazard. 

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