Why We Hold On To Things

What do the things you own say about who you are? Psychologist Bruce Hood studies our relationship with our possessions – from beloved childhood objects to the everyday items we leave behind.

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Additional Resources

Books:

Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need, by Bruce Hood, 2019.

Research:

Thinking of me: Self-focus reduces sharing and helping in seven to eight-year-olds, by Sandra Weltzien, Lauren E. Marsh, Bruce Hood. PLoS ONE. 2018.

Picture yourself: Self-focus and the endowment effect in preschool children, by Bruce Hood, Sandra Weltzien, Lauren Marsh, Patricia Kanngiesser. Cognition. 2016.

Children attribute mental lives to toys when they are emotionally attached to them, by Nathalia L. Gjersoe, Emily L. Hall, Bruce Hood. Cognitive Development. 2015.

Putting Like a Pro: The Role of Positive Contagion in Golf Performance and Perception, by Charles Lee, et. al. PLoS ONE. 2011.

Grab Bag:

Bruce Hood gives a Wired talk featuring the cardigan sweater. 

Banksy shreds his own painting. 

Finders Keepers documentary about Shannon Whisnant and John Wood.

George Carlin comedy on stuff. 

Night of the Demon horror film poster.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Ryan Stayton is opening up a storage unit in Austin, Texas.

Ryan Stayton: Well, I'm trying to make as much room possible.

Shankar Vedantam: It's 10' x 5' with steel walls.

Ryan Stayton: I'm unloading my mom's stuff.

Shankar Vedantam: Ryan's mom recently moved out of town and left her things with him.

Ryan Stayton: It's just crap to me. Lots of files she thought she would need. Lots of purses, probably like 10 purses. Why? Why 10 purses? I'm a firm believer in just shedding your skin, get rid of it and start traveling light.

Shankar Vedantam: But then Ryan stops. He's looking at a VHS tape, turning it over in his hands. It's a recording of a TV show that he was on when he was a child.

Ryan Stayton: I don't know why she's keeping that.

Shankar Vedantam: He shakes his head. It's so like his mom to do this.

Ryan Stayton: And there's sentimental value, so it's hard to get rid of. She does it in abundance just to maybe make her feel better.

Shankar Vedantam: It's not just Ryan's mom. It's hard for many people to let go of their stuff. That's because the things we own can be imbued with deep meaning. This week on Hidden Brain, the complex psychology of what it means to own something and how our possessions reveal a great deal about us. When you move to a new home or a new city, you take your things with you. As you carry box after box out of your house, you might have an epiphany. You own a lot of stuff. Bruce Hood is the author of "Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need." He's a psychologist at the University of Bristol. He explores the psychology of ownership. He knows the answer to the question you may have asked yourself during your last move, why do I own so much stuff? Bruce Hood, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Bruce Hood: Thanks for having me Shankar.

Shankar Vedantam: You mentioned Bruce, that there are about 50,000 storage facilities in the United States. There are even more storage facilities than Starbucks cafes or McDonald's restaurants. What does this reveal about how much stuff we have, Bruce?

Bruce Hood: It's amazing. Isn't it? It's a really strange phenomenon. It's fairly recent. I would imagine as a consequence of the fact that our productions have increased, as our manufacturing has really developed over the last couple of centuries. But we seem to be increasingly on this relentless pursuit of more and more things. And that's really what drove me to start writing a book about what's the motivation behind it all.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah, what's interesting is that we don't just own stuff, but we often find ourselves bewildered that we own so much stuff almost as if we didn't have agency in acquiring all this stuff ourselves. So we look around us and we say, how could I possibly have collected all this stuff around me?

Bruce Hood: Yeah. Well, that's kind of the reasoning behind the title of the book "Possessed." And it's a play on words because obviously possessions are the things that we own. But I'm also alluding to the fact that this is almost as if there's sort of little demon inside us, which is compelling us to go for more and more things. And it's like this irrational little monster who controls our consumption.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand people have studied how much stuff we have in the context of studying fire hazards. So obviously the more stuff you have, the more stuff you have that's combustible. And you've cited an amazing statistic in your book, in the last 30 years, the time to what is called "spontaneous combustion" has gone down from 28 minutes to four minutes. What is this telling us, Bruce?

Bruce Hood: Well, we've got too many flammable things in our house, but it's literally that there's just too many things that we're accumulating. And in fact, a lot of the stuff we have, over spill into our garages. Most garages these days don't contain the cars anymore. They're on the sidewalk and people are literally moving... They fill one room and then they have to put it into the garage to fill it up. So yeah, that combustion time is just a reflection of the amount of things which can catch fire, which has increased significantly.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to play you a clip from the comedian, George Carlin, who had a joke about the real purpose of all our homes.

George Carlin: That's the whole meaning of life. Isn't it? Trying to find a place for your stuff? That's all your house is. Your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn't have so much goddamn stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time. That's all your house is. Is a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You see that when you take off in an airplane and you look down and you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff, everybody's got their own pile of stuff.

Bruce Hood: It's so true.

Shankar Vedantam: So Bruce, I remember a time in my life when I felt like all my worldly possessions not only fit in a single room, but they fit comfortably inside a single room. When I look around my home today, if I put all my stuff in one room, I probably wouldn't be able to breathe. Is that the same for you, Bruce?

Bruce Hood: Yeah, it is. I mean, we generally upsize our houses when we get kids, especially when you get children, you suddenly find yourself buying a whole lot of things that you never knew existed. As we go through different stages of life, we just seem to accumulate more and more and getting rid of it is really a bit of a challenge. That's something I've found very difficult. Although I think in the states, you guys often got yard sales, so maybe it's a cultural thing with a bit of variation, but yeah. Invariably you accumulate more and more things.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. Although the yard sales are a way of transferring the junk inside your home to the junk inside my home. (Laughs)

Bruce Hood: Basically you buy someone else's junk. Yeah. We could just keep our own junk and then not bother with the yard sale. You're absolutely right.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to get to our propensity to own stuff, the psychology of it. But I want to start with a simpler idea that you alluded to actually a second ago. 200 years ago, people owned a lot less stuff than we do today. What is the role of the industrial revolution in producing all the stuff that we see in our lives today?

Bruce Hood: It's really interesting when you think about the amount of time it would have taken to make a very common household item, say a chair, for example. I mean, there would have been skilled craftsmen who would turn the lathes, and make the wood, and glue it together. And it could have taken them quite a bit of time to do that. But when we developed the industrial revolution, we had machinery, we had lathes that were driven by water wheels initially, and then we had steam powered machinery. And so one person rather than taking a day could start to produce literally tens of chairs, and then eventually hundreds of chairs with mechanization. And so what happened was this exponential rise in productivity. People migrated from the countryside into the cities to fill the factories and the factories started to generate more and more products. And of course the profit margin lines start to decrease. So they had to sell more and more things. And so what I think was a perfect storm, if you like, of the ability to produce more stuff, but also at the same time, people who are really working upon our psychology to make us want to buy more and more things.

Shankar Vedantam: So you just indicated, the industrial revolution produced a lot of stuff and marketers have gotten very skilled at selling the stuff to us. But they didn't actually produce the desires that we have in the first place. In your book, you tell the evocative story of the sinking of a ship called the Royal Charter in 1859, it was returning to Liverpool from Australia. Tell me what happened on the ship, Bruce.

Bruce Hood: Yeah. This was a remarkable story. As you say, it was a ship returning from the gold fields of Australia and it sank off the coast of north of Wales just on its return to Liverpool. But what makes the story more tragic in many ways is that this was not inevitable because many of the people who drowned were the miners who wouldn't relinquish the gold that they had so feverishly worked for, they had it sewn into their coats, and they were money belts and they wouldn't abandon it. And unfortunately the extra weight just pulled them to their death. So I think that story just reveals that we can become very irrational when it comes to giving up our possessions. In this case, gold notoriously turns men into fools.

Shankar Vedantam: Our insatiable hunger to own things remains ever present today. And increasingly, as more of our lives are spent online, the possessions that we desire don't even need to be tangible items. Bruce sights an unusual club that's sold in 2010 for $635,000. It was called "Club Neverdie."

Bruce Hood: Well, this is a remarkable story, which really reveals the way that our attitudes to possessions don't necessarily have to be physical possessions. They can be concepts, they can be thoughts. They can be ideas. And I'm talking about the world of online gaming. And Club Neverdie was a virtual club where you could buy virtual items.

Shankar Vedantam: To be more precise, it was a virtual club on a virtual asteroid, in a virtual universe.

Bruce Hood: People were really immersed in this whole gaming world, but effectively they're paying good money for virtual objects. But if you think about it, that's what a lot of gaming does. You buy icons, you buy tools, you buy things to progress in the game. So it's not entirely crazy if you see it from a gamer's perspective. But what makes it bizarre I suppose, if you didn't understand the rules of the game is that, literally people are paying for things which are totally intangible.

Shankar Vedantam: Human beings have a seemingly endless desire to acquire things. When we come back, why we want so much stuff and how our possessions get intertwined with our identities. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Bruce Hood is a psychologist at the University of Bristol. Like other social observers, he's noticed that many of us own much more stuff than we need. Bruce has also discovered that in a very real sense, it is not just we who own our possessions. Our possessions also own us. Bruce has observed this in his own relationship to things, particularly when it comes to his love affair with horror movies and memorabilia associated with them. One of his favorites is an obscure film called "Night of the Demon."

Clip from Night of the Demon: It has been written since the beginning of time, that evil supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. And it is also said, man can call forth these powers of darkness, the demons of hell.

Bruce Hood: I actually do own the original poster. And I spent a lot of money on it. I've got maybe 60 odd movie posters from that era. That one is the one I like the most. What's strange about that is, I'm a psychologist, I'm a scientist and I should be rational and reasonable. But when I started to realize I could acquire and own posters from a genre, you could buy them on eBay. I went through a period of obsessive collecting because I got into these online auctions and there were other horror post-it notes on there. And I discovered that I'm not as rational as I think I am because I found myself bidding on these online auctions for things that really, I didn't have the space to show, because these are big posters. These are about meter by meter and a half. They're very large. And I don't have a house that big, I could even display them, but I kept buying things. And it was partly the thrill of the chase I realized, that actually it wasn't so much the acquisition of the poster. It was more the chase of getting it. And that's what really drove me on. And this has been born out by the signs. This is one of the reasons we buy things, is it's not so much to actually have it, but it's the pursuit of it, which is so thrilling.

Shankar Vedantam: Where have you stored these posters in your home?

Bruce Hood: Well, I have put up as many as I possibly can on the wall, much to my wife's dismay. But most of them I'm afraid are just folded away, carefully and kept in storage until I build up the courage to sell them. But there again, I'm succumbing to my irrational behavior about not wanting to let anything go.

Shankar Vedantam: Speaking of not letting anything go Bruce, your wife inherited several things from her parents after they passed away. What were these items and what did you do with them?

Bruce Hood: We've actually just had this conversation about what are we going to do with all the stuff in the attic? And I'm sure many of your listeners will have had exactly this experience that, you lose a parent, you lose a loved one, and then you inherit all their household items. And as a child, getting rid of your parents' stuff can be emotionally very difficult to do. So we've ended up holding onto this stuff. This is now I must say, it's now 20 years. We've still got this attic full of her parents' household possessions, and this is real sentimental value. You just don't want to violate.

Shankar Vedantam: Do you know what kind of items these are?

Bruce Hood: It's a sort of thing at the time, you recognize that your parents valued it, but in today's comparison, it's things which are just rather useless. But literally all the household items, certainly a lot of the furniture, there's a lot of crockery. All the knick-knacks made of glass and stuff that used to sell mantle pieces that you'd never dream of buying yourself, but because it comes from a relation, then that has this deeper emotional connection.

Shankar Vedantam: So one of the central contentions you have is that possessions become markers of identity for people. So for your wife to take her parents' things and put them in the trash would be at least in a metaphorical sense, like taking her parents and putting them in the trash, it would be unthinkable.

Bruce Hood: Yeah. In our work, we've really drilled down deeply into this. I think for some people, not everyone, there's a deeper sense that there's some physical presence still in the object. And that's what I've been fascinated with.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to get under the hood of our appetite to own things and perhaps start all the way back in childhood. And this is of course core to your own research interests. What does studies of early childhood reveal about the nature of our desire to possess things?

Bruce Hood: Yeah. So again, this came from a personal experience. My eldest daughter formed a very strong emotional attachment to a blanket. And very young babies will form emotional attachments to teddy bears and blankets. But as children grow up, a lot of them don't abandon it. And by the way, my daughter is now 26 and she still has her blanket. And this is a guilty secret I discovered in many of my students, when I asked them, did they have these childhood items. And for a large number of people in the west, they formed strong emotional attachments to these possessions. And that made me realize that items and objects of ownership can form a very deep seeded connection with identity.

Shankar Vedantam: Children fall in love with their teddy bears, blankets and dolls. And these objects can become almost as real to them as living creatures. Bruce was once contacted by someone who told him a story of how his mother refused to part with one of these attachment objects during the German bombing of London during World War II.

Bruce Hood: He contacted me, he said that his 87-year-old mother had to be restrained when she was in The Blitz in London. And they went down into the underground to avoid the bombs. But she'd left her blanket back in the house. And she had to be physically restrained from going out to try and retrieve it. Such is the power of these things that people have this really emotional connection to these childhood sentimental objects. So I think that's totally fascinating. It just strikes me as really an unusual human behavior. Now I used to think it was uniquely human. I ran a study about a year or two ago, looking at dogs and discovered that some breeds of dogs also form strong emotional attachments to certain toys. So it's not unique to humans, you find it in some domesticated pets. And I think that's fascinating.

Shankar Vedantam: The psychologist Lita Furby has found a link between possessions and a feeling of control. It's not just possessions that we have a deep attachment for, but even just everyday possessions. Can you talk about this relationship that the things we own also give us a sense of control in the world?

Bruce Hood: Interestingly enough, I think that's actually how the concept of ownership really starts to develop in children because initially they don't really have a concept of ownership, they'll help themselves to everything. And that's why you got to tell very young children to put that down, that doesn't belong to you, that's your brother's or so on. With time, they begin to understand that other people can own things, but their concept of ownership is very much based on who controls it. So if they can't control it, then they don't own it. And that's why, for example, at five years of age, children think that someone who's asleep or in a coma can't own something because they can't act upon it. They can't control it. So I think the concept of ownership really emerges from this physical possession of something and the ability to exert control over it. And if you can do that, you can own it. And that's one of the reasons I think that children fight so much over possessions and it's partly to do with taking control of it. It's also, they recognize that whoever has control has status. And so they understand there's a relationship between the more that you can control and the more status you have.

Shankar Vedantam: So many of us think that we want things and then we go and acquire them. And of course that's true, but psychological studies also reveal that the arrow of causation can sometimes run in the other direction, acquiring things can increase our desire and appetite for them. Tell me about a phenomenon that you've studied that's called the endowment effect.

Bruce Hood: People when asked to evaluate the value or the worth of something, say for example, a coffee cup, they'll give a reasonably objective value. But as soon as they take possession of it, that value increases. And this is called the endowment effect. People value their own possessions more than others are willing to pay for them. It generally doesn't appear in children probably until around about six years of age, but we did some studies showing you could induce the endowment effect in much younger children, simply by getting them to think about themselves and their possessions as an extension of themselves. And when you're prime to think about yourself, you suddenly become very aware of all your possessions and you think, oh, they're worth more. So it's a kind of interesting extension of our identity, extension of the self.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. And it's interesting when a car salesman is trying to sell a vehicle to you, one of the things they do at least in the United States is ask you to take it for a test drive or in some ways even keep it for a couple of days. And again, the sense is that once you feel like the vehicle is an extension of you, that you belong in the vehicle, and the vehicle belongs in your life, you become much more likely to become a customer.

Bruce Hood: That's right. It's a well-known technique in salespeople, to try something on, just to touch it. As soon as you touch and feel it, then that sense of endowment is triggered and you can just see yourself owning it.

Shankar Vedantam: So we've looked at different ways our identities get wrapped up in the things that we own, and once your identity gets wrapped up in a possession, it starts to make sense why we are so reluctant to let our stuff go. And perhaps even why we store so much stuff, as we discussed at the top of this conversation, letting go of our possessions can feel like letting go of parts of ourselves.

Bruce Hood: Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. And I think that this is something that can be amplified by context. So if we're around others who are signaling their identity through their possessions, we might feel some compulsion or some urge to compete with them. And so, it really does, I think, mirror the circumstances we find ourselves in. And that's why I think the cultural context can be so important. So for example, sharing behavior is entirely culturally determined. Children are sort of fairly selfish, despite what we're led to believe. Any parent will tell you this. And they have to learn that sharing is a social norm, but that norm depends on the culture you're raised in. And that's why I study children. You really need to look at what their parents are modeling towards them as what's appropriate behavior.

Shankar Vedantam: You use the word signaling a second ago in the conversation. And I wonder if we can talk about that for a moment. Sometimes our possessions are not just extensions of our identity, but they're badges, if you will, that allow us to signal things to other people. Can you talk about this role that possessions play in our lives?

Bruce Hood: Sure. So signaling theory really is one branch of evolutionary or sexual selection theories. It goes back to Darwin. And one of the things when Darwin was putting together the theory of natural selection, he was very confused about why certain animals would evolve really ridiculous kind of displays of color and plumage. And in particular, he identified the peacock. The male peacock has this elaborate tail, as everyone knows, it's a beautiful thing. But from a selection point of view, it's really quite cumbersome and requires a lot of energy to build. And it makes the bird flightless. So why would it evolve such a ridiculous adaptation? Well then Darwin figured out a second component of evolution, which is sexual selection. So not only is nature selecting you in natural selection, but you're competing against other mates. You're competing against other animals. And that's the reason that in the animal kingdom, typically the male is most colorful compared to the female. If you look at birds, for example, it's invariably true that the male of the species is much more colorful. And the reason it's more colorful, is it's signaling its prowess to potential females. Because the females, they only have one egg, they get to be choosy. In humans of course, we also signal our prowess or signal our status by the possessions that we can claim ownership over, which in many ways are a proxy of our genetic fitness in terms of enabling the rights or resources that could be passed on to any potential offspring.

Shankar Vedantam: Bruce is not the first researcher to draw this link between the flashiness of a peacock's tail and the flashiness in human culture of a Maserati or a designer handbag. It's precisely because luxury objects are unnecessary, that they can become potent signals of status. In other words, they become what sociologists call conspicuous consumption.

Bruce Hood: Thorstein Veblen, a sociologist pointed out that people would spend good money on items, which were of no additional value. They would prefer to spend more for a silver spoon than a pewter spoon, as he famously said. And the reason is, is not because it's a better spoon, but it's a way of showing off to other people that you have the disposable income you can afford it. One of the motivations for owning certain items is they're not necessarily that much better, but they signal to other people what our status is. So that's one of the mechanisms for this ownership, this conspicuous consumption.

Shankar Vedantam: I mean, you say that the global luxury market is worth $1.2 trillion. I mean, that's a lot of peacock tails right there.

Bruce Hood: That's a lot of peacock tails. There's a lot of conspicuous consumption going on there, but the thing is, of course it does also ring true that when people put on luxury goods or feel that they're wearing something which makes them special, they behave differently as well. So there's a kind of feedback mechanism on our psyche.

Shankar Vedantam: There was one experiment I understand where volunteers were given golf clubs that had been owned by the US golfing champion, Ben Curtis. And I understand that when they use these golf clubs, they actually performed better at golf.

Bruce Hood: It is indeed. That's absolutely true, there was an experiment where they were told the club belonged to the famous golfer. In fact, it didn't, but the belief gave them the confidence to actually perceive the hole to be larger for some reason, and their efforts were much more accurate. So again, it comes back to this idea that even though this is a rational behavior, it can actually have tangible, rational benefits because people think it's actually giving them an advantage.

Shankar Vedantam: And also the fact, they're owned by a famous person, also introduces the idea of scarcity, right? So in other words, if you have Ben Curtis's clubs, then by definition, they're only a few of them. If a product is widely available and it can be easily duplicated, in some ways it loses its power as a signaling device. Because part of what makes a luxury item, a luxury item, is not just that you have it, but that other people don't have it.

Bruce Hood: Yeah. So I think that's indeed true. But I would also say that I still feel that it's the physical connection is what people value, because you get the opposite effect from things which have been owned by people who are reviled like murderous.

Shankar Vedantam: Bruce has tested this idea before a live audience. Do people really imbue objects owned by murderers with a negative psychological lessons?

Bruce Hood (at a presentation): I have here, it's a beautiful cashmere cardigan that's been washed and it was owned by a very famous individual. How many of you would be willing to put the cardigan on for say, 20 pounds? Put your hands up if you'd be willing to do so. That's excellent. Good. Now keep your hands up if you would still wear the cardigan, if you were to discover that the owner was none other than the serial mass murderer Fred West. Okay. Now there's always a couple of resolute, they keep their hands up. You might want to look at the people around you who are now regarding you with some degree of suspicion.

Bruce Hood (in interview): And it's just the prospect of coming into physical contact is something that really makes people feel emotional about it. So it works both for the positive things owned by celebrities, but also the negative revulsion that we feel by things which should be known previously by people who are evil. And that tells me that this is a mechanism which probably ties into a sense of biological contamination as if there's some sort of, I think the word is cooties in America. There's something you can catch. And that somehow imbued in the clothing.

Shankar Vedantam: I was talking some time ago with researcher Anne Bowers, she once measured how much people on the hunt for wedding rings would pay for used rings, but there was a catch. Some of the rings were said to have come from happily married people and some were said to have come from divorced people.

Anne Bowers: So on average, people priced the divorce ring at about $550 and they priced the happy marriage ring at about $780. And it's funny, I asked people in the experiment, why did you price the way that you priced? And people would say things like, "I know, I shouldn't believe this. I know it's just a ring, but it doesn't matter. I wouldn't be okay with this. It just feels wrong." And they can't really articulate why, because they do know it's just a piece of metal, but it becomes really important in these settings.

Shankar Vedantam: What's fascinating to me, Bruce, is that you have simultaneously these two things happening, which is you recognize that the belief is irrational, but the belief still has power over you.

Bruce Hood: Yeah. And I think the reason is, is because we all start off developing irrational beliefs as young children. But as you grow up, you learn through science education that these things are irrational, but you can't eradicate these primitive beliefs. They're always there. And that's why they can come out at times of stress, which you suddenly find yourself behaving irrationally. And that's because they never go away.

Shankar Vedantam: We've talked a little bit about conspicuous consumption and how people use luxury objects to signal things to other people. But researchers in recent years have also explored the idea of "inconspicuous consumption." Can you talk about this idea that in some ways, perhaps because luxury goods have become so widely available and because so many people now actually have luxury goods, you can no longer compete with your neighbor by buying a fancy car because your neighbor also has a fancy car. And so you will come up with new ways to compete using what people call "inconspicuous consumption." What are these?

Bruce Hood: Well, these are codes. For example, dressing down is something that you sometimes see and very wealthy, especially it's almost become almost a bit of a uniform for Silicon Valley that they don't wear a suit and tie. And again, dressing down when you're in a position of power is counter signaling saying, "Look, I don't need to show off because I'm so wealthy." Whether we're aware of it or not, we're adopting uniforms. We're using these artifacts. We're using clothing to tell a story of what we'd like to portray to others.

Shankar Vedantam: Some years ago, Francesca Gino at the Harvard Business School asked shopping assistants who worked in a luxury designer store to evaluate shoppers, to tell who was likely to spend more money. And the shopping assistants believed that people who wore gym clothes in these luxury designer stores were likely to spend more money than shoppers who came in dressed formally. And this again, speaks to that idea that you just talked about, the idea of counter signaling.

Bruce Hood: That's right. I mean, I actually did that on Rodeo Drive, on my honeymoon when my wife and I went out to California. And we'd heard about this amazing place called Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. I didn't have a lot of money at the time, but we walked in some of the most exclusive stores and I was really surprised. And I think it just speaks to the fact that actually they were probably aware that I must be wealthy if I walk into a store like that and dressed like that, so it can be used in the right circumstances.

Shankar Vedantam: For better or worse, the objects we own are deeply intertwined with our sense of who we are as people. Am I the kind of person who drives a Ferrari or the kind of person who has contempt for people who drive Ferraris? Our possessions are stand-ins for deeper things. Our histories, our relationships, our dreams. When we come back, what happens when your notions of ownership, clash with mine? You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. At the University of Bristol, psychologist Bruce Hood studies how we relate to our possessions. In his book, "Possessed," he explains that our attachment to our stuff partly stems from the fact that our possessions are not just objects, but markers of our identity. But what this means is that the same object can mean very different things to different people. In 2007, a North Carolina man named Shannon Whisnant bought a grill at an auction. It ended up making the local news.

News Anchor : It all started with this innocent old smoker grill, Whisnant bought it at an auction after the owner of one of these storage units, didn't pay up on his bill. Whisnant took his treasure home, pretty quick thereafter, he called 911.

Shankar Vedantam: Why did he call 911, Bruce?

Bruce Hood: Well, this is one of the most strange bizarre stories that I think any of us had ever heard. He called 911, because when he opened up the grill, he found that he got more than he bargained for. Literally he opened it up and there was a mummified left human foot inside. He got the shock of his life. He called up because he wasn't sure whether or not this was a murder victim or maybe someone was grave robbing. So that's what really frightened him.

911 Operator: And what's the problem there?

Shannon Whisnant: I've got a human foot.

911 Operator: Have a what?

Shannon Whisnant: I've got a human left foot.

911 Operator: What's your name?

Shannon Whisnant: My name is Shannon Whisnant. And it's plum nasty, got me grossed out.

Bruce Hood: And the police are just mystified. So they just came and took it away. But what happened after that was really interesting because Shannon is a bit of a character. He wanted to make a bit of notoriety for himself. And he'd always aspired to be a person of note. He wanted to try and profit from it. So he realized that people had this morbid curiosity about this foot. So he called the police station back. He said, I want my foot back. I own it fair and square. I'll go to the bill of rights. I owned this smoker grill and everything in there. And that's when the truth emerged, the foot didn't come from a corpse. This is the real kicker. As it were. (Laughs) It came from somebody who was really true and alive, John Wood. So several years earlier, John Wood had been piloting his father's plane. The family was wealthy. They had a small light aircraft and unfortunately John crushed the plane. His father was killed and that was tragic. And John was very seriously injured to the extent he had to have the left foot amputated. And then for reasons which are not entirely clear, he said it was, I think a memorial of his father, he decided he wanted to have his foot back. So he asked the hospital and they gave him. Jury gave him his foot, he took it home and he bought some embalming fluid and he went about embalming his foot. He put it out in the hot Carolina sun and dried it out. But he had a serious drinking and drugs problems. So he'd lost all his income. So he couldn't keep up the payments of rental for his house. And so he decided to put all his worldly possessions into storage. So he put the foot inside the grill, which he owned, and then put it all into the storage unit and then moved to South Carolina. He didn't keep up with the payments of the rental for the unit. The rental company was legally entitled just to sell off all the contents. And this is how it ended up in a sale where Shannon bought the grill and to his horror discovered inside it contained this foot.

Shankar Vedantam: After hearing from the police, John Wood decided he wanted his foot back. So he drove from South Carolina to North Carolina to get the foot. He was giving an interview to local TV stations in the parking lot of a dollar general store when guess who showed up.

News Anchor : Whisnant wants the foot for a tourist attraction, Wood wants no part, he came to Maiden today to read a statement about the issue.

John Wood: To hold any personal belongings ransom and to call it a tourist attraction without any regard for my family's grievances is despicable.

Bruce Hood: And he's confronted in the car park by Shannon. He starts to argue with John about ownership of the foot. In fact, Shannon wanted to get custody of the foot. He wanted to take it on tour.

Shankar Vedantam: And finally Whisnant and Wood decide to settle their dispute on a daytime TV show, Judge Mathis. Speaking in front of a live audience, Shannon Whisnant makes his case that John Wood's leg really belonged to him because he had bought it at an auction. Both these men present their case before the TV judge, Judge Mathis. Shannon says, the rules of the auction were, all sales are final and therefore anything that's in the grill belongs to me. And, and John Wood says, "Excuse me, that's my foot. You can't be buying my foot." How did the TV judge come down on this? What was the ruling, Bruce?

Bruce Hood: He found in favor of John Wood. But he also recognized that Shannon did have a legitimate claim of ownership as he had argued. And so he ruled that the foot could be returned to John, but that Shannon should be compensated to the sum of, I think about $5,000, which wasn't a bad return on his initial couple of dollars for which he paid. But it does reveal that you don't necessarily own things outright.. You would think that you own your own body and therefore no one can claim ownership over it, but actually you can't do with your body as you wish. In Roman law, a lot of our legal systems are based on Roman law. There's a law that is: do what you wish with something. And that's the ultimate form of ownership to the extent that if you own something outright, you could even destroy if you want, but you can't do with your body as you wish because you can't destroy your body. Suicide is illegal in many legal systems and you can't sell your organs. You can't sell bits of your body. So if you were the owner, you would be able to do that financial transaction. And that's why I think the mummified foot is such an intriguing example of what happens when you get a clash between intuitions, about ownership and actually the legal status of a bill or transfer as Shannon rightly points out. So my point is that, the ownership which we intuitively think we have of our bodies is actually contestable from a legal point of view.

Shankar Vedantam: And this was a crazy story involving the leg, but you can see in many other prosaic domains that we have these clashing notions of ownership, not just when it comes to our bodies, but I feel like I own the apartment that I'm renting because I live there. My landlord, of course, would feel differently.

Bruce Hood: That's right. And of course, lease ownership is another example. You don't really own your leased car until you've made that final payment. And who owns the moon and who owns various parts of space. I mean, these are things which our governments are still fighting or they have these treaties. But at one point, I think Russia tried to plant a flag on the bottom of the Arctic. And so there are areas which are still in dispute, and that's exactly the reason that ownership as Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher pointed out, there's nothing written in nature to tell you who owns what, it really comes down to conventions.

Shankar Vedantam: In 2018, the artist Banksy sold a painting titled “Girl with Balloon.” I want to play you a news clip of what happened at the auction.

News Anchor : A jaw-dropping moment, a Banksy painting sells at auction for $1.4 million, the gavel drops, and so does the painting.

Shankar Vedantam: The painting drops with the gavel. What exactly happens, Bruce?

Bruce Hood: What happened was when the gavel dropped, the painting seemed to kick into action and slowly descended into a hidden threshing machine that Banksy had built into the bottom of the display. And literally the picture was shredded in front of the whole audience, gasping in dismay as this valuable piece of art was spontaneously destroyed in front of their very eyes. But what Banksy was doing, and this is very typical of him. He challenges us to examine what do we mean by ownership, because he never claims ownership for anything. And he challenges us each time to rethink about what it is to say that you actually own property.

Shankar Vedantam: There are also other news events in some ways that bring into focus contested notions of ownership. I'm thinking of what happened in 2001, after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, they decided they now had possession of the country and they destroyed two statues of the Buddha that had been constructed in the sixth century. Their reasoning followed the idea that if you own something, you can do whatever you like to it, up to and including destroying it. And of course, when they did it, the world was absolutely aghast.

Bruce Hood: Yeah. Yeah. And of course, if you trace back into the history of all countries, imperialism, who owns a country when you invade it and take it over, and then can you ask for things back when the tides of time turn again? For example, The British Museum is faced with a crisis that many of its collections, a lot of the indigenous people are requiring them back. And again, this is also an issue in the US and who owns things. Is it taken by force? It really is a minefield.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering here, if we can extrapolate this to an even bigger stage, Bruce. Think about the point at which Native American tribes first came into contact with European settlers, part of what followed stem from the fact that they had very different notions of what constituted ownership.

Bruce Hood: Yeah. So this is the famous transaction for owning the island and Manhattan for apparently something like $26. And the reason that this is noteworthy is that it wasn't really a fair trade, because in order to be a fair trade, it has to be a mutually agreed convention about who owns what. Now, if the Indians who didn't have a concept of ownership in that sense of the land can be owned. To them, this looks like an easy deal. People are willing to give you money for something that can't be owned. But of course from the European perspective, land is exactly the sort of thing that you can own out, right? So they saw it as a fair transaction. But it does point to the fact that it's a concept, it's a convention. It's something that has to be mutually agreed. And if both sides don't understand the terms, then it's not really a valid transaction.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm thinking of this poem I read some time ago, it's actually from the ancient Sanskrit from many hundreds of years ago. "From all your granaries, a loaf of bread. In all your palace, only half a bed. Can man use more, and do you own the rest?" So it seems to me that human beings have been wrestling with questions of ownership, Bruce, for a very, very long time.

Bruce Hood: Yes, I think they have. And if you can think back to Buddhism and the disavowment of materialist things, the Buddha certainly talked about the notion of the self as being a kind of illusion in many ways. And that we try to make it manifest through the possessions that we own. And you don't have to be spiritual to recognize that there's something to this. If you think about the way that we spend such a short period of time on this planet, we know we're not going to be around and yet, why are we so preoccupied with owning these things? And we can't stop ourselves from doing it. The research backs this up, that once you've reached a comfortable level, then the additional wealth that you consume, doesn't buy you proportionately the same amount of happiness. And yet, of course, that's not where people end up, they keep on this treadmill. There's always someone who seems to have an edge over us, and there's always a goal to aim for. And whilst that can be a real driver for innovation and entrepreneurship and all those other things, and that's great, the trouble is, it actually comes at a cost to everyone on the planet.

Shankar Vedantam: Bruce Hood is the author of Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need. Bruce, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Bruce Hood: Thank you. I had a great time.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Ryan Katz, Kristin Wong, Autumn Barnes, Laura Kwerel, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung heroes this week are Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel. They are the makers of the documentary Finders Keepers. Bruce Hood, first heard of the story about Shannon Whisnant and John Wood through this movie. The film is riveting and dives much deeper into the story than we had time for. Thank you, Bryan and Clay. For more Hidden Brain, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. You can sign up at news.hiddenbrain.org. If you'd like to support our work, please go to support.hiddenbrain.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you next week.

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