Fear plays a huge role in our resistance to declutter. Have you ever said, “What if I need something I’ve decluttered?” That’s fear talking. Fear of discarding something we need drives us to keep too much stuff.
Fear plays into downsizing to an even greater degree. Everyone around you is telling you to buy a house, or to keep a house, and that you’d be crazy to rent instead of buy. When everyone else is telling you you’re wrong, the your fear skyrockets.
Turns out, humans are incredibly poor at assessing risk. This poor risk assessment leads to increased fear even when the level of fear may not be justified.
Fear Causes Us to Overestimate Risk
One reason fears do not line up with actual risks is that our brains are wired by evolution to make fast judgements, which are not always backed up by logical reasoning. “Our emotions push us to make snap judgments that once were sensible—but may not be anymore,” Maia Szalavitz, a child psychiatrist, wrote in 2008 in Psychology Today.
She also explains that fear strengthens memory, exampling that a terrible plane crash or terrorist attack embeds itself in our memories while auto accidents that we see on a weekly basis are forgotten. “As a result, we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events and underestimate how risky ordinary events are.”
Those times when you (or perhaps your spouse) threw out something that you later needed sticks in your memory. I bet you could tell me every time it happened.
Those few events were dreadful, which caused them to be embedded in your memory. This causes you to overestimate the odds of it happening again.
Availability Bias Warps Our Assessment of Risk
Ahh, but wait, here we have something called Availability Bias entering the picture. Availability Bias is the tendency to give weight to what comes to mind most easily. When you are decluttering (throwing things out) the thing that comes to mind is, “What if I need this someday.” This is the easiest and most common thought.
In my own personal experience, I often lost things in my cluttered home. Since losing things was a common occurrence, the individual instances don’t stand out in my mind. For most, the instances of losing items in a cluttered home are far greater than the instances of discarded items being needed in the future.
The result of both is the same, you don’t have an item when you need it. Availability bias makes you think there is more risk in decluttering than in maintaining a cluttered home full of lost items.
Emotional Components of Risk
To expand on the discussion of how fear plays into risk, we should consider some of the ways emotion can affect our perception of risk. Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon gives us some emotional factors in perceiving risk.
- Do you trust the person you are dealing with
- Control vs. lack of control (lack of control inflates risk perceptions)
- Is it catastrophic or chronic (catastrophic inflates risk perceptions)
- Does it incite dread or anger (dread inflates risk perceptions)
- Uncertainty (lack of knowledge about something inflates risk perceptions)
Let’s look at these in the context of decluttering.
Do you trust the person you are dealing with, and Control vs. Lack of Control. In the case of a spouse, parent, or other family member decluttering your items, this topic is significant. This is especially important to parents decluttering items for their children. When someone else discards your things, you feel the lack of trust and the lack of control. This causes your risk alarms to issue the red alert anytime someone talks about decluttering.
Is it catastrophic or chronic? This is the decluttered item vs. the lost item. The decluttered item feels catastrophic while the chronically lost items feel less risky. Removing emotion reveals that the opposite is more likely true.
Does it incite dread or anger? You dread needing the items you declutter, thus the inflated risk perception.
Uncertainty. Uncertainty occurs anytime you start something new. If you are new to decluttering, you will be unsure of what items to keep and what to discard. This inflates your risk perception. (You can decrease this risk factor by reading, talking to others that have done it, or working with an experienced clutter coach or professional organizer.)
Improve Your Decluttering Risk Assessment
Now that you understand the challenges in assessing risk as it applies to decluttering, here are some categories to use when assessing of the risk of decluttering different items. These can be used to help you get started, or for making decisions on items in your undecided category.
1. Value to Income Ratio
How much are the items worth and would you be able to replace them if necessary? If you are in a middle income bracket, replacing a $5 or $10 item should be easy and thus low risk. A $1000 item on the other hand will have increased risk as it is more difficult to replace.
2. Availability of Replacement Items
Is the item available should you need to replace it. A pen and pad of paper are easily replaced, antique dinnerware is not. You may still choose to declutter the antique dinnerware, but more thought should go into that decision. High availability is low risk, low availability is higher risk.
3. Time to Replace
How long would it take to replace an item? This is often related to availability, but can sometimes be a fact on it’s own. If you can run to the corner store and have it in half an hour, or if you can order from Amazon and have it in a couple days, it’s low risk. If you would have to special order it, or scour the Internet, then the item is higher risk.
4. Need – based on past, present, and future
Is this item a necessity? Need is based on past experience, present state, and future expectations. If you experienced extreme poverty during your lifetime, and you expect that it could happen again in the future, then discarding certain items come with more risk. If you are currently underemployed, but have a high likelihood of resuming your normal level of employment, risk of decluttering some items could be high now, but low later. This mostly applies to things that are truly necessities. Items that fall into the wants category are automatically lower risk.
Our attachment to “stuff” tends to be based in emotion. In order to make real progress in decluttering your home, you’ll need to transition to a logic based thought process. Understanding true risk as opposed to perceived risk will help in this transition. The next time you jump into a decluttering task, take a few minutes to assess the true risk of letting go of those items. I think you might be surprised that the risk of needing those items again is much lower than you initially thought it was.