Virtual reality

Why We Keep Things That Matter—and Some That Don’t

Krystine I. Batcho

Source: Krystine I. Batcho

So many aspects of our lives have been taken over by digital processing and virtual reality. Typewriters were replaced by keyboards, photo albums by storage on devices or in the cloud, in-person meetings by virtual gatherings, and so on. As virtual becomes increasingly dominant over concrete reality, our lives can become streamlined as we acquire and own fewer things. It can be liberating to have fewer things. We no longer need to stuff closets with boxes of photos or lug heavy stacks of books from the library. We no longer need to dust off shelves of books and photos or find places to keep and organize bills, magazines, newsletters, coupons, or marketing catalogs. Virtual has helped make our lives more convenient, more efficient, and even cleaner.

One might wonder whether the shift away from material possessions has been completely beneficial. Or have there been less favorable impacts on our psychological well-being? Things have different types of value—financial, practical, and psychological. A collectible might be worth a great deal someday, but other things seem to have no obvious usefulness or worth. Many people keep things that are meaningful to say, but some people save things that don’t seem to matter at all. Excessive attachment to things can be considered unhealthy. In 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) introduced diagnostic criteria for hoarding as a distinct disorder. Estimates of people who meet the criteria for hoarding disorder range from 2.5% to 6% of the general population. Hoarding is characterized by difficulty letting go of material possessions, excessive or compulsive acquisition of new items, and/or disorganization with an inability to avoid clutter.

Of course, the extreme tendency to keep things affects only a small portion of the population. Most people are selective about which things they save and which they discard. Keeping things that have no obvious practical value raises questions about the meaning and psychological significance of objects. On a rational level, an old ticket stub is not the good time it represents, the prom dress is not the youth once enjoyed, and a photograph is not the loved one it captured in a moment long ago. We can throw away a souvenir without destroying the memory associated with it. But many people are reluctant to discard it. The things that matter most to us may well take their value from the person or people associated with them. In a recent study, one participant described holding dear things that had belonged to a sibling who had passed away, explaining that they didn’t like people touching a special toy that had been with their sibling when they had passed away. Another participant explained that when they don’t want to throw something away, it’s because they feel like they’re throwing away the memory associated with it.

Special objects have assumed the qualities and value of the people or experiences associated with them. Somehow a photo of someone we love contains something of that person. Throwing away the photo can feel like we’re discarding the person in the picture. It can feel disrespectful, unappreciative, or disloyal. The emotional bond can be strong. A stuffed toy from childhood can be comforting as it once was long ago. But it isn’t as simple as keeping things that house the good feelings they’ve acquired. Emotional connections can be complicated because emotions don’t follow the same rules that logical principles do. Objects that once provided joy or comfort can make someone sad, bitter, or regretful in new circumstances. A failed relationship, learning unfavorable information about someone, or unfulfilled dreams can change the emotional impact of something that had once been treasured. In some cases, someone keeps something connected to a painful experience or one that ended badly. One participant in a recent study explained how they can’t seem to throw away letters from an ex, even though they don’t need them or even look at them anymore. Someone might save a negative part of their past as punishment when they feel guilt, self-blame, or self-criticism. They might also want to learn from the past and believe that the reminder will prevent future mistakes. Objects associated with traumatic events can be saved as a tribute to those harmed by or lost to illness, injury, or violence or as a way of honoring their memory. Mementos of adversity can represent the hope that a commitment to never forget will ensure that the horror will not happen again.

Saving remnants of our past in material things is emotionally satisfying in ways not fully met in virtual reality. Psychologically distant, virtual reality does not engage our senses in the same way that physical objects do and leaves us unfulfilled to some degree. Virtual can remain pristine; it won’t fade, get crinkled, or torn. Paradoxically, its unchanging nature robs it of a primary psychological function that special objects serve. Change conveys the passage of time. It is important for us to be able to let go of the past, both good and bad. Neither the ticket stub nor the old hat loses its luster, it helps free us from the hold the past can have on us. It allows us to enjoy new experiences and grow, without feeling guilty that we’re abandoning the past that is so much a part of us. Putting the necklace or old letter in a drawer satisfies our obligation. Over time, wisely-chosen special things can be liberating.

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