April 30, 2018

Why do we have all this stuff?

Does it fill an emotional need or are we just blind consumers?

May's Scientific American has a fascinating psychological expose answering the question of why we keep stuff or certain objects for a prolonged time. The simple answer distilled by author Francine Russo is that we are trying to fill attachment voids that developed in our childhood years. She discusses a lot of data throughout the course of the article

which is beyond the scope of this piece. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety.

The first study discussed by Dr. Gil Diesendruck showed that children are twice as willing to share their most prized possession after they win at a video game as compared to when they lose. It is interesting to think that a positive experience will reduce the need for a favored security object.

Why would this be?

Let us look at this quote: "Much of this new research builds on the late 20th-century work of pioneering psychologists John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and Donald Winnicott. They famously theorized that an infant's attachment to his or her mother and the quality of that attachment significantly influenced that child's future relationships. Winnicott also suggested that as an infant begins to perceive that he or she has an independent self that is separate from the mother, that infant can learn to feel more secure with a "transitional object" that stands in for her. In popular parlance, we call this a "security blanket."

We all understand the security blanket feeling. We all, to some extent or another, have permanent objects that soothe us and soften or change our transition stress. If early childhood attachment is dysfunctional and does not develop normally, than a transition object may become very necessary for self soothing.

Attachment issues leave a person feeling isolated and necessitates a shift towards self-pleasing or consoling behaviors. If the attachment period is disrupted over time as a child, then we may see the prolonged use of a wooby or teddy or later as an adult, the Tesla or mega boat. Now you can see a window into a person's likely early childhood.

Current data shows us that the numbers of children struggling with attachment are increasing. Our youth are displaying more narcissistic and materialistic ideals that follow such trends.

Let us go back to the child with the happy winning video game feeling. We realize that winning causes a dopamine hit which reduces ambient stress and in turn this mitigates the need for a transition object or "security blanket".

A study by Dr. Lucas Keefer showed that people will be more likely to increase their attachment to the "security blanket" when people let them down in relationships. The object is reliable, ever present and we have control over the relationship outcome. In another word, in general, it is stable and cannot let us down.

How does this research help us? What is the take home?

I think that the obvious answer is that as human beings and parents, we are challenged to provide a secure environment for our children to grow up in. One that says to your son or daughter, "I will be here when you fall, when you fail and when you need me. Now go and explore the world and be who you want to be!" This research really dovetails with other previously discussed research on the opposing helicopter parenting style that is leaving the child stifled, fear based and over attached.

If you notice that a child is excessively attached to a transition object, this may be the perfect time to recommend politely to a parent that counseling may be useful for reducing the anxiety that is occurring during times of stress and attachment. Not an easy thing to do, but it is the right thing.

As always, it is about balance and love with guard rails for safety.

Dr. M

Dr. Russo article
Keefer 2012 article
Keefer 2106 article