• Mac Ling

Possessions & Identity

Can infusing meaning into the physical objects that surround us help us (and others) understand ourselves better?

“Let solidity be destroyed. Let us have no possessions.”

– Virginia Woolf

De-materializing materialism

In their 2008 study "The social nature of early conflict", D.F. Hay and H.S. Ross studied a group of 21-month-old subjects' interactions over the course of several days. During this time, one thing became overwhelmingly apparent: According to the researchers' determinations, 84% of the children's interpersonal conflicts had one root cause—someone was trying to mess with someone else's toys.

How can we interpret this prevalent attachment to material objects, not only in the case of children, but within every stage of life? We often think of objects as the fuel of a disembodied materialism; something that takes us away from the purer, more essential aspects of what is important in life. Is there a different way, however, to consider even this early attachment to objects—to isolate something that might be quite healthy and positive in this drive and to then use our physical objects to greater emotional advantage?

There has been much inquiry by psychologists, anthropologists, and economists as to how objects become infused with meaning. Bruce Hood suggests in "Do we possess our possessions or do they possess us?" that perhaps Plato was the first, questioning whether a thing is defined by its physical form (object) or by its essence (meaning). Now, we might ask, how do these two qualities of an object interact?

This may sound like a rather theoretical concern, but there are very concrete ramifications; many sectors of society are willing to put money behind it. Consider the sale of objectively mundane items that have been used by celebrities; often, items that are auctioned after a celebrity is deceased gain in value according to how frequently the celebrity physically interacted with this object (and it stands to some reason that most tend to interact more often with everyday items than they do with fancy heirlooms—President Kennedy's tape measure, for example, was auctioned off for a hefty $48,875). In another realm, we also don't tend to value (even economically) copies as much as originals—imagine a theoretical world in which all factors of a painting by Monet could be replicated, down to the thickness of each brushstroke. Would any of these, possessing the same artistic qualities, have the same value to most as the original that Monet's brush touched?

So if the physicality of objects truly is so deeply ingrained in some societies, what are we to make of the tendency in our era to object minimalism and maximalism at the same time? The world is filled with gadgets that fulfill needs we couldn't have anticipated even ten years ago, and indeed many of us continue to buy these things; our homes overflow with techno-objects. Ironically, this is often done in the name of minimalism. These gadgets allow us to transform a multitude of physical objects into one virtual space (or one physical object, like a phone).

This provokes some salient questions: Can we feel the same ownership and experience the same sense of self from a set of virtual items? Is owning a toy similar to owning a website? Do these contribute equally to our identity, our sense of affiliation, our sense of self? At first glance, it might seem so. It is constructed by you, represents you, and you own it.

The fact that objects can be infused with an intangible "essence" can have many positive implications, if we choose to use them this way. It is why an item gifted to you can be more valuable than an identical item that you bought for yourself; why something inherited provides moment of human connection because someone else you love has owned it. The fact that we can take a physical object and make it livein a different way than its so-called identical counterparts is, at least in some sense, magical.

This month, I invite you to consciously put aside the lens of materialism and consider how the everyday objects that you consider most "yours" represent your identity.


(...should you choose to accept it)

"Things embody goals, make skills manifest, and shape the identities of their users…To understand what people are and what they might become, one must understand what goes on between people and things. What things are cherished, and why, should become part of our knowledge of human beings.”

- Csikzentmihalyi and Halton, The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (1981)


For many of us, technological versions of physical objects make our lives easier: We have to carry fewer items around or we can complete certain unpleasant and tedious portions of tasks faster. Indeed, smartphones accomplish tasks that it would have taken a whole host of physical objects to complete in the past—they are often even named after these objects and contain icons and graphics reminiscent of their physical counterparts: notepads, stickies, radios, telephones... Even when generations arise who no longer remember what a radio truly looks like, one imagines a vestige of the bygone device might remain in the graphic. For 30 days, choose 3 "items" (or more, if you can handle it!) that currently exist for you in a virtual medium and instead deal with them in a physical one (for example, only take notes on a physical notepad; keep a paper calendar; write letters to people you might otherwise e-mail on non-time-sensitive matters). Brainstorming tasks your phones or computers can do for you is a good start! This is not at all an exercise in replacing these things forever or judging them as harmful, but rather a way for you to recognize the aspects of these objects (and their relationship to you) in a new context.


The meaningfulness of objects, some modern theorists have suggested, derives from the idea that the things we own are extensions of our selves—in other words, we are what we think, see, believe, and have. According to Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman and Jack Knetsch, we are subject to a phenomenon known as the endowment effect, which is the tendency to value things you own more than things you do not. For instance, imagine you are shopping for hats. You encounter identical rows upon rows of these hats. At last, you choose one and take it home. You may now refer to this as "my" hat—some suggest that it is now endowed with a sort of mystical quality that makes it different, to you, than the other unclaimed hats upon the shelf. Thus, there is something intangible embodied in this object which is otherwise entirely physical. This theory has applications in economics, where studies have shown that people actively assign a lower monetary value to objects they don't own compared to those they do. In other words, a person might be willing to buy a mug for 10 units of currency, but once they have owned, used, and become attached to it, loss aversion will not allow them to part with it for less than, say, 12 units of currency (a phenomenon that directly contradicts a perhaps more objective assessment of an object's physical value, wherein an object tends to physically degrade with use). In another study on the endowment effect, a team of economists led by Coren Apicella attempted looked into the evolutionary basis for this tendency. They found that it, in fact, differed among societies depending on how members viewed their sense of self (in free market capitalist versus more communally-based societies, for example). Among the Hadza Bushmen of Northern Tanzania, they found the endowment effect more pronounced in Hadza societies that lived near "modern" societies and markets as compared to the Hadza that lived in isolated communities. In what ways does this reflect a sense of self? In his article "The psychology of stuff and things", Christian Jarrett lays out a few stages of life in which this is true:

  • Based on her study, Jerusalem College of Technology researcher Ruthie Segev reported that gift-giving among adolescents helps build a sense of identity that is separate from their parents; exchanging similar items, in particular, can provide adolescents with the comfort of "overlapping identities."

  • In 2007, Graham Fraine and his team studied young drivers' (ages 18-25) tendency to mark their cars with personalized identifiers: stickers, seat covers, specialty license plates. They present this as an example of the self expressed in early adulthood—the purchase of a first car is significant in that it represents a stage of identity (extrapolated to other societies and items, of course, this coming-of-age item of transition can be easily swapped in this theory for another).

  • Kimberly Morrison and Camille Johnson found that, in their study, individualists (rather than collectivists) who were able to describe an object that somehow symbolized their identity also demonstrated quantitatively higher levels of self-certainty. They posit that the self-reflection required to know how one's self is imbued in or represented by an object can have a positive unifying effect on one's ego. They further extend this to the phenomenon of the "mid-life crisis," which often manifests as an extravagant purchase of some kind intended to express or restore a sense of self.

Thus, we can see that the concept of materials and materialism is not necessarily all negative. According to L.J. Shrum and other scientists at the University of Texas at San Antonio, materialism has its positives. Jarret writes: "To the extent that acquisitions are motivated by intrinsic goals such as affiliation, belonging, pride and self-reward, they predict that materialism will improve well-being."

Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need by Bruce Hood

In this book, psychologist Bruce Hood discusses the human desire to own things, even when it can be construed as irrational or self-destructive. Drawing upon research into the various life stages and ownership, differences in cultures, and lab experiments, Hood sketches a holistic picture of our relationship to our possessions.

"The psychology of stuff and things" by Christian Jarrett (The British Psychological Society)

In this wide-ranging article, Jarrett discusses how materialism factors into the sense of self, the American dream of materialism, and psychological ramifications of owning things.

"Self, Society, and our Stuff" by Laurie Hurson

Hurson discusses our relationship to objects from a different angle than those discussed above: She traces the ramifications of our transition from a production-based society to a consumption-based society, suggesting that this object balance plays a role in connecting our selves to society and potentially driving social change.

"Do we possess our possessions or do they possess us?" by Bruce Hood (Psyche/Aeon)

This article contains a distillation of the concepts in the book by Bruce Hood above. Here, Hood discusses topics ranging from genetic fitness as expressed and inferred by possessions to the idea that the concept of material wealth can make a wine actually taste better when we are told it is more expensive.

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