A Study In Stuff

In a New Scientist series on “stuff,” Alison George outlines the pre-history of property:

By the time modern humans reached Europe around 40,000 years ago there are clear signs of ownership. “You can see notches and marks on various items – the notion of ownership is there,” says Steven Mithen of the University of Reading, UK. But the amount of stuff that people could accumulate was constrained by their nomadic lifestyle, leading some archaeologists to speculate that bags or papooses might have been among our earliest possessions. This changed with the switch to a settled lifestyle. …

In fact, some archaeologists such as Ian Hodder of Stanford University in California argue that societies could not have become complex and hierarchical without an associated “material culture.” This switch to sedentariness drove materialism in another way. Gary Feinman at the University of Illinois in Chicago argues that our urge to accumulate stuff is based on a desire to minimize risk. “When people settled down, they became more susceptible to environmental disaster,” he says. A way to insure against this was to store surplus food – a process that created the need for possessions to gather and hoard, as well as the domestication of animals.

Meanwhile, Michael Bond investigates the psychology of property ownership:

Our ability to imbue things with rich meaning is a universal human trait that develops early in life (see “My blankie!“), and develops as we get older. A 1977 survey of multiple generations of families in Chicago revealed that older people tend to prize objects that spur memories and reflection, whereas younger people value things with multiple uses – like a kitchen table and chairs. That may be the case in the digital era as well. Sociologist Eugene Halton, who conducted the survey, speculates that younger people today might prize their smartphone above all else, but it is unlikely to stay special for long. “Not a lot of people collect their old computers and cellphones as meaningful possessions,” he says.

The inclination to value things we own beyond what others think they are worth is known in psychology as the endowment effect. It explains why we are more likely to buy a coat once we have tried it on, or a car once we have test-driven it – just imagining that something is ours makes it seem more valuable.