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Taking ownership

Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need by Bruce Hood (Allen Lane; £20) reviewed by David Robson.

04 November 2019

One day in 1949, the blues musician BB King was playing a gig in Arkansas when a fight broke out between two men over a woman named Lucille. They knocked over a heater, which started a fire, and soon everyone was evacuated. Once outside, however, King realised his $30 guitar was still on the stage and ran back into the dancehall to get it. He subsequently named all his guitars 'Lucille' – and even wrote a song about the incident – to remind himself never to act so stupidly again.

King's reaction may seem extreme, but many of us are already risking our lives for our possessions. Fire departments report that hoarding is a serious hazard, with one estimate suggesting that they contribute to a quarter of preventable fire-related deaths.

How come? This is the subject of Bruce Hood's excellent new book, which upends the concept of possession and ownership. In his view, it is we who are 'possessed' by material goods, at a great cost to ourselves and the environment – and we need to exorcise their power over us.

Following the success of Marie Kondo's anti-clutter TV series early this year, the topic is very much within the zeitgeist. But as you might expect from the author – a professor of psychology at the University of Bristol – Possessed combines philosophy with rigorous experimental research to examine the reasons why we want to own so much more than we need.

Some of the themes may feel familiar to readers of The Psychologist – though Hood adds much needed nuance to the most well-known findings. The cliché that money can't buy happiness, for instance, has been widely debunked with the now famous studies of lottery winners. But as Hood points out, the latest replications show that their judgements of overall life satisfaction are higher; lottery winners are conscious of their comfort, even if they are not any more likely to report joyful emotions in any given moment.

Or consider the ways that money and possessions contribute to status; like the peacock's tail, they are a costly display to impress potential mates and establish our superiority over our rivals. Hood points out that this is prevalent even among the poorest members of society, who spend proportionally more money on showy luxuries, which may seem illogical until you recognise the fact that competition and hierarchy are so much more tangible in poorer neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, the possession of one luxury means we feel more dissatisfied with our other, less fancy goods, fuelling a desire to upgrade everything – a phenomenon known as the Diderot effect.

Hood's argument hinges on the fact that our goods are essential for maintenance of our own identities, as part of our 'extended self'. Research shows that – at least in the West – we tend to rate our possessions as being even more important to our sense of self-identity than our friends and family. And the very act of ownership causes us to inflate our perceived value of something, while the loss of a good can trigger feelings of pain. (Studies have even shown that analgesic drugs can reduce our loss aversion for this reason.) Hence why Kondo's clients find it so hard to let go, and why someone like BB King risked his life to save his guitar.

Possessed is only 165 pages long (excluding footnotes), but Hood's writing is crisp and he covers an impressive range for such a slim volume – fitting, perhaps, for an argument against waste and excess. Besides provoking questions about our own habits, he shows us how this understanding can inform discussions of inequality, climate change and domestic abuse. For practical strategies to declutter, read Kondo. But for those interested in the psychology and philosophy of materialism, this rich and engaging book will spark hours of joy.

- Reviewed by David Robson, science writer and author of The Intelligence Trap and How to Make Wiser Decisions. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

See also our collection on ownership.