UI researchers determine loneliness affects how people hoard belongings

UI Tippie College of Business professors found a connection between loneliness and the holding onto of possessions in a recent undergraduate, online study.


Tate Hildyard for The Daily Iowa

University of Iowa Marketing Professor Alice Wang poses for a portrait in the Pappajohn Business Building on Feb. 17, 2020. Researchers in the Tippie College of Business have connected hoarding to the feeling of loneliness.

Rachel Schilke, News Reporter

University of Iowa Tippie College of Business researchers have discovered a connection between emotions and how people part with belongings.

UI Marketing Professors Catherine Cole and Alice Wang conducted research that found loneliness was the most common emotion people felt when faced with getting rid of certain possessions, whether or not those items were used frequently.

“When people are socially isolated, they do not have quality relationships,” Wang said. “So, they are more attached to material possessions.”

Undergraduate students in the UI Marketing Department and some selected from an online Amazon sample were chosen as participants for the study, Cole said, adding that interviewing more than just undergraduate volunteers provides more authentic and well-rounded research.

With the money provided by the Tippie College of Business, she said, they paid study participants through Amazon’s survey-pool process to get a wider range of data.

The researchers sent out questionnaires to the participants, Wang said, and had them list an item that they owned that was no longer useful and say whether they wanted to dispose of it.

The pair cross-referenced those responses with questions to evaluate feelings that participants associated with their possessions, Wang said, finding that lonelier people were less inclined to give them up.

“In our marketing classes, we look at what causes people to buy things,” Cole said. “We have not really focused on what causes people to get rid of things.”

Although students were the main participants, the study findings can apply to a wide range of age groups in the Iowa City area. Cole said that after Aug. 1, when leases end or begin, couches, tables, and other items from their apartments or dorm rooms sit on the ground as trash around Iowa City.

“Iowa City is known as a place where people are constantly moving, whether it is students leaving the dorms or residents downsizing from their current homes,” Cole said. “There is all this stuff on the curbs. It makes people more thoughtful about why and how they are getting rid of things.”

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UI Marketing Professor Gary Russell said in an email to The Daily Iowan that Wang and Cole are well-respected researchers in the field of decision making within the UI community and the consumer-behavior research industry.

He said that Wang focuses on the effect of loneliness on decision-making and Cole studies the connection between aging and holding onto possessions, so this research fits their expertise.

Moving forward, Cole said she wants to continue looking at the connection between older consumers and their possessions.

“A lot of people are moving and downsizing and have to make quick decisions about what to dispose of,” Cole said. “The goal is to see how we could make that decision easier and the psychological forces affecting their decisions.”

Russell said that when senior citizens are looking to move, they must choose what to take or what to leave behind. Often, they will turn to their children and grandchildren to pass their belongings down to them, he said.

“This sets up an emotional tug-of-war across the generations,” he said. “It should be clear that possessions carry strong, emotional meanings.”

He said the possessions that are most difficult to give away are family heirlooms that carry meaning to grandparents or of the upbringing of their children.

“Giving up possessions is, in some sense, giving up memories,” Russell said.

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