Tidying-Up Guru’s Insight Into Behavior Change

I was obsessed with what I could throw away. One day, I had a kind of nervous breakdown and fainted. I was unconscious for two hours. When I came to, I heard a mysterious voice, like some god of tidying telling me to look at my things more closely. And I realized my mistake: I was only looking for things to throw out. What I should be doing is finding the things I want to keep. Identifying the things that make you happy: that is the work of tidying.

This is how Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, describes the revelation that led her to the principles of her KonMari method, which has in turn made her an unlikely global celebrity.  Kondo’s moment of insight is instructive to any of us who seek to change behavior.  By reframing tidying-up from being about “things I want to throw out” to being about “things I want to keep”, Kondo has opened up a way of supressing an instinctive behavior that prevents people from removing the clutter in their lives.

In my book The Business of Choice: Marketing to Consumers’ Instincts I explain how instinctive behaviors and other non-conscious processes drive our choices and behavior. In a chapter entitled Loss and Ownership I cover a number of these that relate to our aversion to losses, including a cognitive bias called the endowment effect.

A natural inference of our compunction to avoid loss is that we overvalue things we already own. This overvaluation is demonstrated by another phenomenon related to prospect theory, called the endowment effect. Economist Richard Thaler coined the term endowment effect to describe how people assign higher value to items they feel they own compared to identical items they do not own. In a now famous experiment, Thaler and collaborators demonstrated the endowment effect using Cornell University students and coffee mugs. The students were given coffee mugs from the university bookstore and others received nothing. Students who weren’t given a mug were asked what they would be willing to pay for such a mug; students who received one were asked how much money they required in order to part company with their mug. The striking finding from this experiment is that the amount of money students said they would accept to sell their mug transpired to be around twice the amount of money students without mugs were prepared to pay for a mug.

The endowment effect means the mere ownership of objects makes them more precious to us than they rationally should be — even things that we don’t necessarily need or want.  The idea of casting our possesions aside jars our instincts, and we resolve this unpleasant feeling by finding reasons to keep these objects, a prime culprit being “I may need this one day”.  Hence I have drawers full of cables and power adapters that I will never use, half a  closet of clothes I’ll never wear and shelves of reference books I’ll never refer to.

Marie Kondo’s insight helps overcome this.  By making the inner dialog “should I keep this?” rather than “should I throw this out?” she neatly allows us to sidestep the natural tendency to construe discarding something as a loss, and removes a barrier to the behavior change necessary to declutter our lives.  An important part of her creed is that we keep only the things that “spark joy”, which taps into a whole other set of behavioral research that I cover in my book, and will deal with in a further post.

As well as giving us the keys to tidiness, and the joy that she believes can come from cherishing the possessions we want to keep, Kondo gives us an object lesson in how to engineer and inspire behavior change.  To one untidy person with a personal and professional interest in behavior change, these are two great gifts.

Matthew Willcox is Executive Director at the Institute of Decision Making at FCB, and author of “The Business of Choice: Marketing to Consumers’ Instincts”, published by Pearson FT Press and available on Amazon http://amzn.to/1B4ENam