What Psychologists Know About Your Clutter That You Don’t

decluttering Nov 08, 2023
What Psychologists Know About Your Clutter That You Don’t

Clutter has a way of creeping into our lives and taking up valuable physical and mental space. While many of us struggle to declutter, psychologists have gained insights into the underlying reasons behind our attachment to possessions.

In this article, we will explore the fascinating psychology behind clutter and shed light on what psychologists know about your clutter that you may not be aware of.

Loss Aversion

Psychologists have introduced one common reason people find it difficult to let go of clutter – loss aversion.  Loss aversion is a cognitive bias that refers to our tendency to prefer avoiding losses over acquiring equivalent gains.

In other words, the displeasure we experience from losing something is generally stronger than the pleasure we feel from gaining something of equal value.

This bias can significantly impact our decision-making process when it comes to our belongings, making it difficult to let go of items we no longer use or need. We fear the perceived loss associated with getting rid of something, even if it holds little practical value or really serves no purpose in our lives.

Loss aversion usually shows up as an emotional attachment to your stuff, which makes you view those things at a higher value than they actually deserve. This can make an item even more difficult to part with- even though there’s no practical use or true sentimental connection.

Realizing the downside to holding onto these things- such as an abundance of clutter, stress, and an overall sense of overwhelm–  can help you reframe your perception of what constitutes a loss.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy is another cognitive bias that leads us to continue investing in something simply because of what we’ve already invested, even when it’s no longer rational or beneficial to do so. The term “sunk cost” refers to costs or investments that have already occurred and you can’t get back.

This fallacy occurs when we let past investments or expenses influence our present and future decisions, even when all the data suggests cutting losses would make more sense. Essentially, we’re driven by the desire to avoid the feeling of wasting resources or admitting we made a poor decision.

The sunk cost fallacy can contribute to the reluctance to declutter and let go of possessions. People may feel they need to hold onto items simply because they have invested money in them, even if those items are no longer useful or bring value to their lives. But recognizing the fallacy can help you break free from this attachment and make decluttering decisions based on your current needs and goals.

Overcoming the sunk cost fallacy requires a shift in mindset and a focus on future outcomes rather than past investments. It involves recognizing that the resources already spent are irretrievable and should not dictate present decisions.

The Endowment Effect

The endowment effect is another cognitive bias contributing to clutter attachment. We tend to attribute a higher value to things we own simply because we possess them.

Psychologists have found that our perception of an item’s worth is often inflated compared to its actual value. Recognizing this bias can empower us to reassess the true importance of our possessions and make more objective decisions when decluttering.

In one example of this, some university students were red university mug and then asked how much they would be willing to sell the mug for. The students who didn’t receive a mug were asked how much they would be willing to spend to get one.

You might think that FOMO would overrule here, but because of the Endowment effect, the students who already had a mug valued it at nearly twice the price.

Your Clutter Becomes Invisible to You

Have you ever noticed that you stop seeing your clutter after a while? This is because your brain has selective attention, which makes sense- none of us would be very productive if we noticed everything around us all the time.

The gatekeeper of this information is something called the Reticular Activating System (RAS).

Now, there’s a lot to unpack with the RAS- the most basic explanation is that it’s a bundle of nerves in your brainstem that filter out information. Psychologists are also studying it to determine a potential role in diseases like schizophrenia and Parkinson’s.

For our purposes, as your brain adapts to the presence of clutter, it filters it out, making it less noticeable over time. This gradual blindness to clutter can cause you to collect even more clutter without necessarily being aware that it’s an issue.

Now, of course, the way around this is to intentionally draw your attention to where things are located inside of your space. Even taking a picture of your space can help to bring attention to things that you don’t generally notice when you’re standing inside of that space.

Self-Efficacy Determines Your Results

Decluttering requires effort, decision and taking action. And a lot of people struggle with this process because they don’t have the confidence in their own ability to organize or to let go of things. 

Well, in the late 70s Psychologist Albert Bandura introduced the concept of self efficacy to the world and this is something that is widely taught and practiced in Psychology Today. 

The self efficacy theory says that people’s belief in their own abilities in any given task or project profoundly impacts their behavior and their success in that thing. I’m sure you’ve heard this thing before whether you believe you can or you believe you can’t. You’re right. 

If you’re self efficacy around subjects like decluttering or organizing or just maintaining a chaos free life are low, then you’re very likely not going to take the actions and have the behaviors that would be necessary to give you that outcome of having a clutter free chaos free space. 

Lucky for you, Bandura also identified four ways that you can help to increase your self efficacy. 

Acts of Mastery

The first one is Acts of Mastery; that’s basically just saying your performance outcomes- you’ve done it before or succeeded in something similar. Therefore, you feel like you can do it again, or be successful in this.

This is where taking those baby steps comes in, and is really helpful in eventually building the confidence to believe that you can be a clutter free person.

Vicarious Experience

The second way is Vicarious Experiences, basically learning from other people or seeing other people who you feel are similar to you and believing: “Well, if they can do it, I can do it.”

Modeling, role models, maybe watching different media channels that you relate to and identify with and seeing how other people do it.

Verbal Persuasion

The third source is verbal persuasion. “They told me I could do it, so I believe I can.”

This is where affirmations or verbal encouragement or just getting with other like minded people who reaffirmed that yeah, it’s definitely possible to be able to let go of your clutter or to create a more streamlined, organized, simplified life.

Psychological Arousal

And the fourth source is something he called Psychological Arousal, which is basically just your emotional state.

Sometimes, your physical body or mind just feels less competent; it could be hormones or other things going on in your life that have your mood a little bit dipped to where you don’t feel as confident that day. We all go through that.

But catching yourself at the right time or working on having a more positive, optimistic mindset can also magically increase your self-efficacy in any given thing.

You feel more optimistic and better about the outcomes, so you take more inspired actions, and you get better results for it.

Rationalizations And The Unconscious Mind

Number six is that rationalizations aren’t always conscious decisions. One study that’s just been crazy to watch on this is with split-brain patients. In some patients with severe epilepsy and seizures, a last-ditch treatment is to split the brain in half. 

The little bundle of nerves connecting the left side of the brain to the right side of the brain is severed so that each half of the brain functions independently. It’s like having two brains and one perceiving and responding to information separately.

Now, the right hemisphere of your brain controls the left side of your body, and vice versa.

So, studies were run on these split-brain patients by showing an image to their left eye to go to the right side of their brain and showing a different picture to the right eye to go to the left side of their brain and see how they would communicate and rationalize the information that they received. 

What’s cool is the left side of the brain, which is the reasoning and rationalizing side, would skew the information in its favor. 

So here’s an example: a patient is shown a chicken foot only to the right eye and then a snowy field only to the left eye, and then they’re asked to select words from a list and match each of the pictures. The words they select are chicken (matching chicken foot) and shovel (matching the snowfield). 

However, when asked why they chose the shovel, their response would relate to the chicken because that’s the only image that the left side of the brain actually realizes it saw. So the patient might say that the shovel is for cleaning the chicken coop. 

In a real-world example, a patient was shown the word “music” to the right eye, which goes to the left side of the brain, and the word “bell” to the left eye, which goes to the right side of the brain. 

When shown a picture of a bunch of musical instruments, the patient selected the picture of the bell. And when asked why he selected the picture of the bell, his brain came up with a rational reason for it: “The last time I heard any music was coming from the bells out here.”

You’ll notice the reasons are totally plausible. They’re very rational reasons. Any person who didn’t know that the patient was showing the picture of a bell would be like, “Okay, that makes sense,” but that’s the point!

That’s how great our brains are at naturally rationalizing without us even realizing that they’re doing it.

In short, the human brain has a remarkable ability to rationalize and justify our actions, including keeping clutter.

We can have totally rational and plausible explanations for why we need to hold on to things that would make total sense to ourselves and the people we’re telling it to.

But the rationalizations aren’t always true or 100% accurate.

Your Clutter May Say More About You Than Your Art

Your clutter may say more about you than your art. There have been a number of ongoing research studies since 2013 indicating that the possessions we choose to keep and how we organize them can reveal insights into our personality, values, and emotional state.

This could be as simple as indicating that the types of clutter you own highlight a particular area of struggle- for example, holding onto other people’s things might indicate trouble setting boundaries, or holding on the unopened boxes or items with tags still on it could indicate that you have a fear of the future or a “What if I need it someday” mentality, but it could go even deeper than that.

There are a ton of studies right now researching the relationship between clutter and personality traits.

Understanding the deeper meaning behind our clutter can help us reflect on our true struggles, desires, and priorities.

The Impact Of Our Environment On Happiness

One area that you might have sensed but may not have given a lot of stock to is the impact our environments have on our happiness.

Numerous studies, such as those conducted in Blue Zones (areas with high rates of longevity and happiness), have shown that the environment plays a significant role in our well-being.

This, of course, is in stark contrast to a cluttered and disorganized space, which has been proven to contribute to stress, anxiety, and a sense of feeling overwhelmed.

Altering our environment and removing the clutter, creating a more streamlined and organized space, is not only more visually pleasing to look at, but we can also feel a more positive impact from it and our mental and emotional state.

Clutter Begins As A Process Of The Mind

Clutter is not solely a physical manifestation but also a product of our thoughts, emotions, actions, and environment. It often starts with thoughts and emotions that lead to acquiring and holding onto possessions.

Understanding the connection between our mind and clutter can help us address the underlying psychological factors contributing to its accumulation.

Your Thoughts Might Be Distorted

Speaking of CBT, back in the 1960s, Aaron Beck came up with it as a therapy approach that helps people identify and change negative thought patterns and beliefs. Part of this approach was identifying patterns of irrational thinking, which he called cognitive distortions (or thought distortions). These thought distortions can be seen in the clutter scene too.

All-or-Nothing Thinking (or Dichotomous Thinking)

This distortion involves seeing things in black and white without considering shades of gray or middle ground. It can manifest as thinking that an item is either essential to keep or completely useless, disregarding the possibility of alternatives or compromises.


Catastrophizing involves blowing things out of proportion and imagining the worst-case scenarios. In relation to clutter, this distortion might involve excessively worrying about the potential negative consequences of decluttering, such as regret or loss, leading to avoidance of the decluttering process.


Overgeneralization involves making broad, sweeping conclusions based on limited evidence or a single experience. In the context of clutter, this might involve assuming that because you needed a specific item once, you will likely need it again, accumulating unnecessary possessions.

Minimization and Maximization 

Minimization involves downplaying a situation’s importance or positive aspects, while maximization involves magnifying the negatives. In relation to clutter, minimization might lead to dismissing the impact of clutter on well-being and organization, while maximization might involve exaggerating the potential negative consequences of letting go of possessions.


Personalization involves attributing excessive responsibility or blames to oneself for events or situations beyond one’s control. In the context of clutter, this distortion might involve feeling excessively guilty or responsible for letting go of possessions given as gifts or inherited, even if they no longer serve a purpose.

Should Statements

“Should statements” involve placing rigid expectations or rules on oneself or others. In relation to clutter, this might involve believing that you should keep certain items due to societal norms or external pressures, even if they don’t align with your personal preferences or needs.

Selective Filtering

Selective filtering involves focusing only on certain aspects of a situation while ignoring or discounting others. In the context of clutter, this might involve hyper-focusing on an item’s potential value or use while ignoring the overall clutter and disorganization it contributes to.

Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning involves making decisions based on emotions rather than objective evidence. When decluttering, emotional attachments to items can cloud judgment and lead to holding onto things for sentimental reasons, even if they no longer serve a practical purpose.

We can break free from the clutter trap and create a more organized and peaceful living space by challenging these thought distortions and replacing them with more rational thinking.


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