Academic Minute Podcast

Jacqueline Rifkin, University of Missouri Kansas City – How Nonconsumption Can Turn Ordinary Items into Perceived Treasures

What makes trivial things seem special to someone?

Jacqueline Rifkin, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Missouri Kansas City, looks into this question.

Jacqueline Rifkin is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at UMKC’s Henry W. Bloch School of Management. Jacqueline earned her Ph.D. in Business Administration in the area of marketing at Duke University and her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Jacqueline is interested in consumer psychology and consumer well-being. Her research explores how marketing and consumption affect well-being on both an individual and societal level. She is currently exploring how consumers manage their resources–their time, money, and experiences–and the impact this has on decision-making and well-being. Her research has been published in Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing, and Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, and has been featured in popular press outlets including Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, NPR, Der Spiegel, and Swedish Public Radio.

How Nonconsumption Can Turn Ordinary Items into Perceived Treasures


A brief glance in one’s closet or pantry reveals that people own numerous products that they never use. Not only is this wasteful, it can create clutter. Clutter is both common and harmful, creating significant stress and strain in people’s lives. So, why do people continually fail to use their possessions, and what does this have to do with clutter?

In six experiments, my coauthor Jonah Berger and I uncovered one important reason why people can accumulate so many ordinary possessions without ever using them: nonconsumption, or the act of not using something.

We found that when people decide not to use something at one point in time – for whatever reason – if you believe that you were waiting to use it, the possession will start to feel more special. And as it feels more special, they want to protect it and are less likely to want to use it in the future. Specifically, you’ll want to use it LESS in ordinary occasions, and MORE in extraordinary occasions. But as you search for the right occasion day after day, it becomes more tempting to hold out for an even BETTER future occasion. The less you use it, though, the more special it feels, and the cycle continues. The more this happens, the more stuff you have lying around, and the more clutter piles on.

This cycle of less and less usage, and more and more perceived specialness – which we call a “specialness spirals”- offers one explanation for how possessions accumulate into clutter: by encouraging people to repeatedly avoid using their possessions, holding out for a future special occasion that may never arise.


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