Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 113
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Prized Possessions

Researchers learn why people form attachments to possessions.

Picture the following 2 images and guess what they have in common: A widow sitting defiantly in her home resisting every effort to move into smaller quarters, and a toddler clutching a teddy bear? The answer: attachment to possessions. For the widow, her home and many of the possessions in it are infused with meaning and her clutch upon them matches the toddler's emotional hold when Mamma insists "Baby" must visit the washing machine for a bath.

From early life through old age, we form attachments to objects, and for people in sales and marketing, understanding this process gives us an insight into what can happen to the products we offer for sale. It may even help us close a few more sales.

Susan Schultz Kleine, from Arizona State University, recently led a team of researchers who examined attachments to possessions, concentrating on people in their 20s. The team used an unusual research technique which allowed them to explore deeply into people's motivations, and they were rewarded with rich, new insights into people as they form these meaningful attachments.

People form attachments to possessions when these objects help narrate their life story. These lifeless "things" become artifacts of the self, and they gain intensely personal meanings for the individual . . . an opal ring, for example, a gift from Grandma on a 16th birthday, or a rocking chair used to rock, comfort, and nurse a mother's babies.

People form strong attachments to possessions that remind them of valued relationships from the past, but they also form strong attachments if possessions remind them of their autonomy or independence . . . qualities that serve them well in the present that they expect to value in the future. A college diploma, for example, is an artifact of being intelligent and well educated; a luxury car is an artifact that demonstrates prosperity and good fortune.

Kleine and her team expected to find gifts heavily represented among prized possessions, especially those reminiscent of past relationships; but they found a different pattern. The bulk of valued possessions were items people had purchased for themselves, and most were associated with feelings of autonomy. Gifts from others most often fell into a third category of possession, one characterized by weak attachments.

Exploring further, Kleine and her team learned how valued possessions lose their special status. It happens through change and through misfortune. Valued possessions reminiscent of a marital relationship quickly lose their attraction after a divorce. A youthful hot rod gives way to a station wagon with car seats a few short years after college graduation. Valued family pictures reminding a young man of his role as a son quickly lose their special place after marriage.

The researchers noticed that many items, cars for example, fell into different categories for different people. They concluded that any possession could become prized. They discovered that merely liking a possession did not predict that it would become a prized possession. And they learned that people only developed attachments to gifts from others if these items also matched autonomy themes reflecting personal qualities they valued. The gift of a sweater, for example, only became prized if its color, style, and fit matched a self image the recipient valued.

Attachment begins at the point of purchase, and that's where sales and marketing people can make a contribution. If you remember these themes and refer to them at the right time, you can help infuse the items you hope to sell with these special meanings. A furniture salesman, for example, showing sofas to newlyweds can describe a time in the future when they'll look at the sofa and remember good times. Delivering this image as conviction moves through desire toward a purchasing decision can help this salesperson close more sales.

Reference: Kleine, Susan Schultz, Robert E. Kleine III, and Chris T. Allen (1995). How is a Possession "Me" or "Not Me"? Characterizing Types and an Antecedent of Material Possession Attachment. Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (December), 327-344.

© Management Resources

See Also:
Closing, Closing, and Closing

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