In a colorfully decorated classroom, a five-year-old boy is asked to describe his favorite belonging. He talks effusively about the dinosaur T-shirt his mom forced him to put in the wash that morning. Then he plays two simple computer games, trying, of course, to win. But the fix is in: experimenters have arranged that he will win one game and lose the other (and, to avoid suffering harm, will win a third and final game at the experiment's end). After winning and after losing, he, like the other boys and girls in this 2015 study conducted by psychologist Gil Diesendruck of Bar-Ilan University in Israel and his colleague, is asked by an adult whether he would be willing to lend this favorite thing to another child for one night.

This experiment set out to explore whether injury to young children's sense of self resulted in a stronger attachment to personally meaningful possessions. The results were dramatic. Children were almost twice as likely to be willing to share their most treasured belonging after winning the game than after losing. Yet in a control situation involving possessions they cared less about, the children's success or failure in the games had no effect on their willingness to part with the items.

Such experiments are among the latest efforts to understand the deeply emotional and psychologically complex relationship between humans, their sense of security and their material possessions. Much of this new research builds on the late 20th-century work of pioneering psychologists John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and Donald Winnicott. They famously theorized that an infant's attachment to his or her mother and the quality of that attachment significantly influenced that child's future relationships. Winnicott also suggested that as an infant begins to perceive that he or she has an independent self that is separate from the mother, that infant can learn to feel more secure with a “transitional object” that stands in for her. In popular parlance, we call this a “security blanket.”

Since then, other branches of science, from evolutionary psychology and anthropology to consumer research and neuroscience, have affirmed that our belongings fill many emotional needs. They comfort us amid loneliness and boost our confidence about our abilities. In fact, our possessions do not just make us feel secure by substituting for important people in our lives; we actually see these objects as an extension of ourselves. We believe—or perhaps act as if we believe—that in some way, our very essence permeates our things. If these things become damaged or lost, we ourselves feel damaged or lost.

Stated baldly, our relationship with our stuff can sound a little crazy. But it is perfectly normal. “We all keep things and take great comfort in our possessions,” says Nick Neave, an evolutionary psychologist at Northumbria University in England. “It's part of our evolutionary heritage.” Keeping food—especially if it was hard to get—was and still is a major survival mechanism, Neave explains. The same is true of weapons and tools. “If you send someone into the world with nothing,” he says, “they feel vulnerable. They need their possessions to make survival possible.”

Human beings are, of course, social animals, so our needs for security are more complex than just the basics for physical survival. It may be helpful to recall psychologist Abraham Maslow's classic hierarchy of needs, expressed visually as a pyramid. Published in 1943, the pyramid's large base represents physiological needs (food, air and water), then builds upward through layers of physical safety (shelter, weapons), love and belonging (relationships and community) to esteem (ego strength) and, at its peak, self-actualization (optimal emotional health in which we realize our full potential). With the possible exception of self-actualization, our belongings can play a role in affording security in all these areas, including ego security and confidence in our relationships.

Theories of Attachment

Can you name your so-called attachment style? Probably not, unless you have had psychoanalysis. The psychoanalytic literature has identified four major attachment categories. If as a small child, you felt that your caregiver was reliably present and dependably met your needs, you developed a secure attachment style. But if your caregiver pushed you away in times of need, you probably developed attachment avoidance, learning to be independent and emotionally distant. Meanwhile if you perceived that your caregiver was inconsistent in meeting your needs, you may have developed an anxious attachment style, where you cling to or are constantly monitoring people in your intimate circle to make sure they will be there for you. Those who felt harmed in some way by their caregivers in early childhood develop a fearful/avoidant attachment style, making them afraid to get close to others. A classic American study in 1987 by researchers Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver, both then at the University of Denver, found that 56 percent of us have a secure attachment style, about 20 percent are anxious and about 24 percent are avoidant.

By drawing on this early psychoanalytic work, scientists have recently created provocative experiments that are beginning to nail down the roles various attachment styles play in our love affair with our things. Notably, anxious and other insecure attachment styles may be on the rise. A 2014 meta-analysis of studies involving American college students found that the percentage of students who scored as having secure attachment decreased from about 49 percent in 1988 to about 42 percent in 2011. The authors speculated on explanations or correlations, including reported increases in individualism, narcissism and materialism.

As more people suffer from insecure attachment styles, the behavior of seeking emotional solace from material objects is likely rising, too. According to an intriguing three-part study by psychologist Lucas A. Keefer, now at the University of Southern Mississippi, and his colleagues, people cling more tightly to their belongings when they feel less confident about the people they care for. In this research, published in 2012 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the first participants were randomly asked to write about three recent instances when someone close to them had let them down. Subjects in a second group either wrote about when a stranger had let them down or when they had let themselves down. Only people in the first group—primed to consider the unreliability of their close friends or romantic partners—reported greater uncertainty that they could count on others and an increased attachment to objects.

In the third part of the study, undergraduates were asked to write a few sentences either on uncertainties they felt about their abilities or uncertainties they felt about their relationships. Then the experimenter asked all the participants to relinquish their cell phone, which would be returned as soon as they completed an open-ended writing assignment. Keefer found that those asked to write about uncertainties regarding their relationships reported greater separation anxiety from their phone and showed (by how fast they finished the writing task) a more urgent need to get it back. This was true even when the researchers controlled for the phone's perceived usefulness as a social tool.

Why do we reach for things when people we care about let us down? That worn sweatshirt is not human. It does not show us compassion. Neither does a teddy bear or a coffee mug. But, scientists point out, these objects are utterly reliable, always present and under our control. We can count on them.

How Things Replace People

Inanimate things lack human capabilities. Yet many of us relate to them as if they were people. Ever named your car? Patted the hood when it gets you somewhere safely? There is a whole literature of research on how and why we anthropomorphize our things, as well as animals, tools and machines. Basically people need human connection and must find a way to fill this need, even when there are no other humans around. Think of Tom Hanks's character in the movie Cast Away, washed up alone on an island. His best and only friend is a volleyball on which he has drawn a face—with his blood.

When the people we care about are not physically present, we can think in ways that make us feel as if they are with us. In one study, McGill University researchers asked a group of participants to think about someone whom they felt close to and could trust. They then asked the subjects to visualize what it would be like to be with him or her and to write a few sentences about the perceived experience. Another group was asked to do the same, except with a mere acquaintance.

The results, published in 2016 in Psychological Science by psychologists Jennifer Bartz, Kristina Tchalova and Can Fenerci, confirm previous research showing that some people try to increase their sense of social connection by assigning human attributes to things. In this study, all the participants rated four objects on their social and nonsocial attributes. (One was an alarm clock that rolls away when it rings.) The subjects who were tasked with writing about an acquaintance—as well as those who tested as having an anxious attachment style—were more likely to anthropomorphize the objects, giving them higher ratings for social attributes. Only those who were asked to imagine being present with a loved one were less likely than the acquaintance group to rate objects as humanlike. “It was a little surprising to us,” Bartz says, “that such a relatively minor manipulation—thinking about and visualizing a close other whom you could trust—could have such an impact.”

Credit: Timothy Archibald

Humanizing important belongings may do more than compensate for when we feel unsure about our relationships with close people, according to a recent study by Keefer. Some individuals, he says, see human qualities in objects because of a situation—for example, stemming from a breakup or a move to a foreign city. Others, research has shown, simply have a greater tendency to anthropomorphize as a character trait. In an experiment with undergraduates, reported in 2016 in the Journal of Individual Differences, Keefer found that for this latter type of person, being reminded of a favorite belonging could—like a reliable caregiver during childhood—serve as a secure base from which to explore and take risks. This tendency shows that our favorite things not only compensate for deficiencies but can help us grow, Keefer says. He suggests that humanlike technology such as robots and Alexa-type digital personal assistants may be able to offer people additional sources of emotional security.

Stuff as Salve

Remember that experiment where the young boy lost a game? Because losing made him feel less confident about himself, he needed to think of his favorite T-shirt as unequivocally his. A raft of literature shows that we adults also use our “toys” to compensate when we feel unsure of ourselves. In a research review published in 2017 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, lead author Naomi Mandel, a marketing professor at Arizona State University, and her colleagues find that the things we buy can offer a “psychological salve” to help us feel better about ourselves. They suggest that tangible objects can symbolically stand in for the assuredness and comfort we lack. They cite a classic example from a 1982 study by psychologists Robert A. Wicklund and Peter M. Gollwitzer that found that M.B.A. students who had fewer job offers or worse grades than their peers were likelier to display such symbols of business success as expensive suits and fancy watches.

In a 2016 study, social psychologist and Berea College marketing professor Ian Norris also concludes that craving consumer products is partly fed by interpersonal insecurity. In a 2012 article entitled “Can't Buy Me Love?” in Personality and Individual Differences, Norris found that people with an anxious attachment style might substitute relationships with objects for relationships with people when they feel lonely—that is, when they experience the discrepancy between the closeness they want with others versus the closeness they actually have.

These results seem consistent with the attachment-style work of Winnicott, Norris says: “Other people are an extension of our self-concept. We don't develop a stable sense of self without meaningful social relationships. The ‘self,’ to a large extent, is a social construct: my relationship with others contributes greatly to my understanding of who I am. When those relationships are unstable or unfulfilling, people may lack the connection they need and attach meaning to products that fill the void.”

We are everything we can call ours

Back in 1890 psychologist and philosopher William James proposed that a man's self included not just his body and consciousness but everything that he owned and that pertained to him, including his family and friends, “his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account.” Consciously or not, many of us feel that our possessions are part of our extended self. A deeper, even less conscious belief is that through physical contact, our things actually become imbued with our essence. Although this belief in “contagion” was identified in “primitive” societies by anthropologists at the end of the 19th century, much research has shown that contagion beliefs are alive and well in modern American and European cultures, according to Olga Stavrova, a social psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. In Stavrova's 2016 article in Judgment and Decision Making, she and her co-authors wrote that research consistently shows that people feel disgusted by the thought of making contact with items such as a serial killer's sweater or a Nazi officer's hat. The authors found similar responses for art and music. “People tend to implicitly believe that music is imbued with its composer's essence,” Stavrova says. They would go to some trouble to avoid listening to a piece if the composer was a highly immoral person.

This belief in contagion also appears in youngsters—and with an interesting wrinkle. When Diesendruck and his colleagues were researching children's willingness to share a cherished possession, they conducted another experiment: An adult shows a girl a photograph of another child who is the same age and gender. This child in the photograph, the girl is told, is mean. She hits her friends and does not listen to her parents or teachers. “Would you be willing to give this girl your favorite shirt?” She is adamant: No, no, no. “But what if we wash the shirt first?” the adult asks. “What if we wash it a lot?” Well ... maybe then.


This conversation with children, held repeatedly by researchers, showed that kids believe that their belongings contain—and retain—some particles of themselves. When this essence is “removed” from the object, by washing, for example, they can better tolerate the idea that it came into contact with someone “bad.” This example of “backward contagion” is especially interesting, Diesendruck says, because unlike “forward contagion,” it is not consistent with our understanding of biological contamination.

What is remarkable, Diesendruck adds, is that the child believes another person's contact with an object that is no longer present can somehow still affect him or her. Diesendruck suggests thinking of this concept as a string, with the self on one end, and the object on the other end. It is as if the self travels through the string to the object, touches someone “bad,” and then that badness travels back through the string to the self.

Provocatively, several brain studies have recently provided evidence that we do indeed regard our belongings as part of our extended selves. In one experiment that appeared in 2013 in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, psychologists Kyungmi Kim and Marcia Johnson, both then at Yale University, found that during functional magnetic resonance imaging, objects that a person had previously imagined as “mine” activated the same brain regions as references to a person's self.

When Attachment Becomes Obsession

It is now clear that people with an anxious attachment style may be more likely to assign human attributes to their things, regarding them as an extension of themselves. These same individuals may be more vulnerable to developing a hoarding problem. Most of us want to save items of sentimental value, but cherishing our things becomes a pathological condition—which about 4 to 5 percent of the adult population has, scholars say—when people keep acquiring stuff and cannot get rid of any of it regardless of its utility or value, even if it endangers their health, life and relationships. In 2013 clinical hoarding syndrome was recognized as its own complex condition, separate from obsessive-compulsive disorder, in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Researchers, however, have been laboring to pin down its causes for decades.

For those who hoard, possessions create sentimental associations with people and events in an intensified manner. Researchers tell us that some who hoard speak of “wanting to die” when they let go of a treasured item or liken it to “losing a part of oneself.” Whereas most work on hoarding has been done in the U.S. and Europe, some research suggests that it may also arise in Eastern cultures, although a new study on Taiwanese children still under review indicates that people in collectivist societies versus individualist societies may relate differently to material things.

Between the mid-1990s and 2007 Smith College researcher Randy Frost and Boston University social work researcher Gail Steketee developed the widely accepted model of hoarding based on cognitive-behavioral therapy—a method that aims to change people's patterns of thinking to modify how they feel and behave. They see hoarding as a result of three basic factors. The first is the presence of disorders such as depression and anxiety, which make people emotionally vulnerable. Hoarding sufferers use their belongings to safeguard their identity, to “soothe their fears” and to build “fortresses” to make them feel more secure. The second factor is maintaining faulty beliefs about objects. For example, those who hoard feel responsible for taking care of their possessions as if they are living creatures. They believe that piles of brochures and ancient newspapers may contain important information they may one day need and cannot afford to be without.

Finally, people who hoard experience extreme emotional reactions when acquiring things and when getting rid of them. This pattern includes sensations of intense pride and pleasure when they get something new and guilt, fear and grief when they attempt to dispose of objects. Ongoing research has found that the relationship between people who hoard and their things is complex and thorny. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to achieve clinically significant improvement in only about 35 percent of those who hoard, according to a 2015 meta-analysis. Researchers and clinicians say they still have much to learn before they can bring relief to the majority of those in thrall to their possessions.

If people who have an uncontrollable need to save everything are on the extreme end of a continuum all of us occupy, the other end has those who possess the typical impulse to save things that remind us of meaningful moments and people. “Sentimental attachment is normal and can be good,” says Russell Belk, a consumer researcher and psychologist at York University in Toronto. Belk did foundational work in the late 1980s on how our possessions become part of our extended self. He documented how victims of natural disasters feel personally injured by the loss of their things. As we watch news footage of the latest hurricane or wildfire victims weeping over the loss of their precious possessions—a coffee cup their child made, their grandfather's worn tool chest—we can easily identify. We all have things that mark ourselves, our histories and our loved ones. Losing them hurts.