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The behavioural economics of the Marie Kondo method

Summary:
Marie Kondo is the guru behind the best-selling Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy. For some people, like me, her method works. One possible reason for its success is that, underneath it all, there are some sound behavioural economics principles. 1. Shift the reference point Marie Kondo recommends dividing one's possessions into five categories and tidying them a category at a time: first clothes, then books, papers, miscellaneous and finally sentimental items. Within each category, the first step in tidying is to empty all of one's cupboards, closets and drawers, and put every single item of say, clothing, into one big pile. It's a brilliantly simple and effective nudge. Moving one's clothing creates a new, shifted, reference point. The default or status quo position

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Marie Kondo is the guru behind the best-selling Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy. For some people, like me, her method works. One possible reason for its success is that, underneath it all, there are some sound behavioural economics principles.

1. Shift the reference point

Marie Kondo recommends dividing one's possessions into five categories and tidying them a category at a time: first clothes, then books, papers, miscellaneous and finally sentimental items. Within each category, the first step in tidying is to empty all of one's cupboards, closets and drawers, and put every single item of say, clothing, into one big pile.

It's a brilliantly simple and effective nudge.

Moving one's clothing creates a new, shifted, reference point. The default or status quo position changes from "in the closet" to "on the floor." Taking each item of clothing and putting it back in the closet then involves a deliberate choice; an act of will. (Marie Kondo emphasizes that each item must be dealt with one at a time - shoving a pile of t-shirts back into the t-shirt drawer is not allowed). Once the status quo has changed to "on the floor" it's much easier to take the next step and say "off to the thrift store."

2. Counter loss aversion

Homes become cluttered and untidy when they contain too much stuff. But it's hard for people to part with things, because we are loss averse - we feel the pain of giving something up much more acutely than the thrill of getting something new. 

The Marie Kondo method creates a series of rituals to counter loss aversion. Pick up an article to see if it "sparks joy". If it does not, thank it for its service, and let it go. However hokey it seems to say an emotional farewell to a t-shirt, the act fits with standard psychological advice: the best way to cope with negative emotions is to observe your feelings, acknowledge them and work with them. Allow yourself to feel sad, and the sensation will pass; suppress those emotions, and they will linger and fester.

3. Frame work as leisure

Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 5.32.32 PMBehavioural economics teaches that framing matters. For example, people will perceive a hamburger advertised as "91% fat-free" as healthier than one marketed as "9% fat." 

Marie Kondo is all about framing. Work is reframed as leisure, with messages such as "folding clothes is so much fun!" It might seem a preposterous claim, but is folding clothes really that different from pastimes like Candy Crush or Tetris?  They all involve sorting things out, making nice tidy shapes, and putting things away. 

4. Empower the planner

Behavioural economist Richard Thaler has a "two self" model of the human psyche (ungated here or here). The "planner" is the rational homo economicus, making plans that are in a person's long-term interest, for example, exercise and get fit. These arrangements, however, must be executed by the "doer", who is myopic, and has learned through millions of years of evolution that the best survival strategy is to lie around and expend as little effort as possible. 

Many behavioural economics "nudges" work by making it easy for the doer to execute desired behaviours (put the fruit bowl on the counter where the doer can just grab an apple) and hard for the doer to execute less desirable behaviours (put the cookies in a hard-to-open jar on the top shelf that the doer is too lazy to reach for). 

A tidy "planner" wants their impulsive, slobbish "doer" to do three things: buy less stuff, get rid of stuff, and put stuff away. Framing and countering loss aversion help with the last two items on the list. But how can the planner get the doer to stop buying useless stuff that clutters up their home? The answer is: get organized.

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Marie Kondo has multiple techniques for organizing stuff. For example, clothes are folded into little squares, then stacked in a drawer vertically, rather than horizontally. Do this, and you will know exactly how many blue t-shirts you have, and exactly how many t-shirts your drawer will hold. Yes, the impulsive doer will still want to buy things. But organization makes it easier for the planner to say "no, we already have four blue t-shirts, and we don't have room for any more. If we buy more, we'll mess up our nice, tidy t-shirt arrangement."

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Another Marie Kondo organizational trick is to sub-divide drawers, and store items, e.g. scissors or measuring cups and spoons, in a single space. If there is a place for everything, and everything is its place, the planner knows, for example, just how many pairs of scissors there are in the house, and just how many measuring spoons, and can tell the doer firmly "don't buy it; we don't need it."

There's a lot more to the Marie Kondo method than behavioural economics. There's mindfulness. There's introspection and imagination. There's selling cardboard storage boxes for $69/set.  But I believe that - to the extent it actually works - it does so by nudging people in the right direction.

Frances Woolley
I am a Professor of Economics at Carleton University, where I have taught since 1990. My research centres on families and public policy. My most-cited work is on modelling family-decision making, measuring inequality within the household, feminist economics, and tax-benefit policy towards families. I hold a BA from Simon Fraser University, an MA from Queen’s, and completed my doctorate at the London School of Economics, under the supervision of Tony Atkinson.

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