Shoes, blankets and attachment theory. Here’s how psychology plays a role in our favorite belongings

If The House Were On Fire is a two-part poem series that looks at the satire of emotional investment in material objects, and how these belongings, through memory, could never ever be “accidentally” placed in the GoodWill box. “A Child’s Game” is the second poem in the series, following “If These Shoes Could Speak.” The following interview with Kelsey Shanahan, senior in psychology, looks at the psychology behind that emotional investment.

Dirty, worn shoes. A blanket lovingly shredded into three separate parts. In each bedroom, mundane items that an unknowing person wouldn’t blink an eye at could cause WWIII if tidied up and set out for the trash.

What is it about being human that makes us tie ourselves—and our memories—to objects?

Kelsey Shanahan, senior in psychology, said the emotional attachment to physical objects can be explained through a theory known as the attachment theory, which explains how an individual can become attached to an object by forming an emotional connection.

According to the University of Illinois department of psychology’s website, the theory of attachment was originated from John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst who was attempting to understand the distress experienced by children who had been separated from their parents.

In his studies, the separated infants would cry, cling and frantically search Bowlby observed that separated infants would go to extraordinary lengths “to prevent separation from their parents or to reestablish proximity to a missing parent.”

By looking at emotional attachments to material objects and comparing that to Bowlby’s study of attachment theory, it becomes clear that the attachment is not necessarily a need, but rather a motivational system designed by evolution, both as a species and as a child to an adult.

When individuals form emotional connections to these objects or places, these things become part of their identity, and by extension, part of themselves, Shanahan said.

“If individuals have a lot of seemingly necessary objects, then they have been reinforced in their lives that they need these items to function,” she said. “They have created their identity out of these items.”

But what happens when an individual chooses to live a minimalistic life?

Shanahan said those few items may be all they need to feel apart of their identity, or have other ways to define themselves.

“A large part of the American culture is consumerism, and communicating your identity through items,” Shanahan said. “I believe that having an emotional investment in a non-human, non-feeling object can be beneficial to a certain point, but it would be a problem if the emotional investment to a non-human object was affecting our human interaction. This has the potential to promote antisocial behavior that can become unhealthy.”

Shoes, baby blankets, whatever it may be — we crave an attachment to a person or a memory.

Whether that is because of an evolutionary process or just the way our brains are hardwired, Shanahan said she’s not for sure, but if the house were on fire, she would save her cat Daisy.

“I would count on her to run out of the house on her own, though,” Shanahan laughed. “But…on second thought, it would probably be my favorite blanket.”