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Personality and self

The essence of things

Following the Notre Dame fire, we consider the importance of objects and things.

16 April 2019

In the aftermath of the devastating Notre Dame fire, we asked Professor Bruce Hood (University of Bristol) for his reaction, in light of his research into the essence we ascribe to objects:

"Sacred sites such as Notre Dame are constantly in need of renovation and repair over time, with little concern from the general public about the replacement of original materials. However, when that replacement is sudden and extreme, such as after a fire, there is considerable anguish about the amount of damage. This difference reflects essentialist thinking. For example, if you take your wedding ring to be repaired at the jewellers and a small amount of the gold is replaced, then we consider it the same ring – just altered a bit. But we would not accept an identical ring in exchange even if we could not tell the two apart. However, it you repeatedly take your ring back for repair until none of the original gold is left, then we still consider it the same ring. But what if the jeweller had saved all the gold from each visit and then recast a new ring – which of the two is your ring? This conundrum, known as the 'Ship of Theseus' problem, demonstrates that we tend to think that there is a core quality to things that we value, that exists over and beyond the material composition – its essence. This is also true of Notre Dame – so long as there is one brick, one nail or one original element then the essence of Notre Dame is retained and we can rebuild an identical copy which will be regarded as essentially the same."

We've trawled our archives to highlight our own articles on the psychology of things, stuff, objects, and possessions, and looked further afield to bring you our favourite content from elsewhere on the web.

From The Psychologist

The psychology of stuff and things
Research Digest editor Christian Jarrett on our lifelong relationship with objects.

Why magazines matter
Our journalist Ella Rhodes considers style and impact in the printed form.

The "experiential advantage" is not universal
Guest Research Digest blogger Juliet Hodges on how the less well-off get equal or more happiness from buying things.

New evidence for the "propinquity effect"
Research Digest staff writer Emma Young on how mere physical closeness increases our liking of desirable people and things.

The psychology behind why we value physical objects over digital
Christian Jarrett on seeing our possessions as extensions of ourselves.

Are you what you have?
Helga Dittmar on consumer society and its effects on our sense of identity.

When psychologists become builders
Our managing editor Jon Sutton on his love of Lego, and the IKEA effect – valuing objects we've laboured over.



Why are we so attached to our things?
TED-Ed Animations. Christian Jarrett details the psychology of ownership.

Still have your childhood teddy? The psychological power of the toys we keep
The Guardian. Moya Sarner on 'transitional objects', thought to help infants transition from parental care towards independence.

Edge Conversation. Bruce Hood on the authenticity and irreplaceability of objects.

For the love of stuff
The Atlantic. Julie Beck on our attachment to possessions, and the transformation from 'thing' to meaningful symbol.

Problems too disgusting to solve
The New Yorker. Maria Konnikova on the power of disgust, and why nobody wants to wear a sweater owned by Hitler.