Carried out by Karen Winterich, from Pennsylvania State University, along with researchers from The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business and the University of Texas at Austin, the study came from Winterich’s own experience with struggling to de-clutter old items.
“The project got started when I realized I was keeping an old pair of basketball shorts just because they reminded me of beating a major rival basketball team in junior high,” Winterich said, “I didn’t want the shorts — I wanted the memory of winning that game and that’s what I thought of when I saw the shorts.”
“A picture can easily mark that memory for me and I can donate it so someone else can use it, which is even better.”
To see if a photo could also make it easier for others to part with sentimental items the researchers recruited 797 students at Penn State who lived in six residence halls on campus.
At the end of a fall semester the researchers advertised that a donation drive was to take place, just before students left for the holidays.
However, the team used two different advertising campaigns in the various residence halls to promote the drive.
In the “memory preservation” photo campaign, the signs stated, “Don’t Pack up Your Sentimental Clutter…Just Keep a Photo of It, Then Donate.”
In the control campaign, the signs said, “Don’t Pack Up Your Sentimental Clutter, Just Collect the Items, Then Donate.”
Similar numbers of students were exposed to both signs.
When counting the donated items, the team found 613 items were donated in the halls that promoted the “memory preservation” campaign, and only 533 in the control campaign.
Researchers believe that people were more willing to give away items with sentimental value if they took a photo to preserve the memories, which is what people really want to hold on to.
The team also found in related experiments that not only memories but also identities were linked to items and prevented people from donating them.
In one study, people who were donating old items at a local thrift shop were given instant photos of the items they were donating, while others were not.
They were then asked about whether they would feel a loss of identity from giving away the items, with the results showing that those who received the photos reported less identity loss than those who did not.
Study co-author Rebecca Reczek noted that the photo tactic won’t work for items without sentimental value or items that people want to sell instead of donate.
She also commented that, “It may not work for something that has a lot of sentimental value, like a wedding dress.”
However, Winterich added that by using the photo method, “We hope that it will not only make it easier for people to clear out clutter, but it will also help spur the donation process, benefiting nonprofits and the recipients that they serve.”
The results were published in the Journal of Marketing.