Phenomenological Analysis of the Importance of Special Possessions: an Exploratory Study

Elizabeth Myers, Department of Psychology, University of Tennessee
ABSTRACT - Objectives of this study were to find out more about individuals' experience of attachment to emotionally significant possessions at different ages. Although some research on individuals' general possessions and worldly goods has been done, little research has focused primarily on attachment to special possessions beyond childhood. A phenomenological research approach was chosen as most suited to the exploratory nature and descriptive goals of the study. Twelve mature, articulate, well-educated individuals were interviewed in depth concerning their "possessions of special importance," both past and present. Most research participants described attachment to special possessions at all ages. Patterns in the developmental function served by special possessions at different ages were found, and these patterns, as well as the importance of special Possessions in the Process of Growth is discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Elizabeth Myers (1985) ,"Phenomenological Analysis of the Importance of Special Possessions: an Exploratory Study", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 560-565.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 560-565


Elizabeth Myers, Department of Psychology, University of Tennessee


Objectives of this study were to find out more about individuals' experience of attachment to emotionally significant possessions at different ages. Although some research on individuals' general possessions and worldly goods has been done, little research has focused primarily on attachment to special possessions beyond childhood. A phenomenological research approach was chosen as most suited to the exploratory nature and descriptive goals of the study. Twelve mature, articulate, well-educated individuals were interviewed in depth concerning their "possessions of special importance," both past and present. Most research participants described attachment to special possessions at all ages. Patterns in the developmental function served by special possessions at different ages were found, and these patterns, as well as the importance of special Possessions in the Process of Growth is discussed.


The importance of possessions of special emotional significance and their meaning to individuals has long been popularly recognized. A child's cuddling of a blanket or teddy bear, a teenager's obsession with his automobile, an adult's attachment to a worn but valued jacket or shoes; such examples occur constantly in the media and in everyday life. It is clear that such attachments occur at all ages, and with all different types of possessions, from cowboy boots to convertibles, though little research has been done in this area. The literature focuses almost exclusively on special possessions in early childhood (Hong 1978), or on possessions and possessiveness in general (Belk 1983; Furby 1978). The objectives of this study were to learn more about well-adjusted individuals' experience of their relatively few such specially treasured possessions, and the function such significant objects might play in a person's life and growth.

As a psychodynamically oriented clinician, I initially become interested in individuals' attachment to special possessions through observation of patients and through the work of D. W. Winnicott. Winnicott was a pediatrician and psychoanalyst who first observed and described well-adjusted children's attachment to a first treasured possession, e.g. a doll or "security blanket"; he also discussed the role special possessions play in normal development (1953). Be stressed that these attachments are expected and usually benign, unlike previous researchers who had seen such attachments as pathological; Wulff (1946), for example, went so far as to call such objects "infantile fetishes." Winnicott, however, saw special possessions as serving a crucial soothing function, and facilitating growth during the earliest phase of development. This period of development extends from about six months to six years of age and is one in which the child becomes a separate person and then begins to turn to others outside the family (Mahler 1975). During this time the child's internal equilibrium is easily upset--witness the "terrible twos"--and the treasured possession is understood to augment the necessary calm and comfort the mother lends to an upset, overtired or disoriented child.

Later researchers and theorists have largely concurred with Winnicott's formulation that a child's attachment to a first special possession facilitates and is a sign of growth. Metcalf and Spitz (1978) have described the earliest special possession as a "psychic organizer," a signifier of certain essential developmental processes, such as memory, creativity and imagination. Tolpin (1971) points out that not only does the first treasured possession provide soothing, but that through its use a person gradually develops the ability to soothe himself, and the child "grows beyond" the need for a special external soother; this would account for the facts that attachment to teddy bears and blankets fade out between about six and ten years of age, and that presumably few adults sleep with a stuffed toy. They have successfully negotiated the early stages of development.

Research on young children's attachment to special possessions has provided a great deal of information about early development (Hong 1978). A problem remains, however, in that although Winnicott and subsequent researchers have focused on the first special possession which occurs during the early phases of development and growth, Winnicott himself and others have pointed out that growth continues throughout life (Erikson 1950). Also, it is apparent that attachment to special possessions occurs at ap ages, although the possessions themselves and their importance is of course different for an adult, an adolescent, or a child. These significant possessions are not confined to early life any more than all developmental issues are confined to early life.

Until recently, the attitude towards adults' attachment to special possessions has been much like that towards children's attachment to special possessions prior to Winnicott; that is, adults' special possessions are usually viewed as pathological or rather fetishistic. However, fetishes block or fixate growth and are different from the kind of possessions considered here. Recent theorists have begun to view adults' emotionally significant possessions as potentially growth-promoting (Kahne 1967; Halpern 1968). One study found that well-functioning adults do in fact report significant emotional attachment to special possessions (Vlosky 1979). However, the study was a quantitative one, and other findings from this study were judged overly theoretical, premature, and not particularly helpful at a stage when more exploratory, hypothesis-generating research is needed in this area.

The goal of the present research was to explore and obtain as full a description as possible of individuals' experience of special possessions at various ages. A phenomenological research approach was used, as the objective of the phenomenological method is to describe experience rather than to test hypotheses (Giorgi 1970). Such an approach allows one the opportunity to examine each individual ' s experience of special possessions in depth and without prior assumptions, and puts an emphasis on the qualitative rather than the quantitative. Since a basic phenomenological assumption is that all human experience is structured and has meaning, the need to force or impose a priori structure is eliminated. A semi-structured interview method, as described by Colaizzi (1978) and de Rivera and Kreilkamp (1981), was selected as that most appropriate, sensitive, and powerful for obtaining current and retrospective data from articulate adults.


Twelve volunteers, 7 women and 5 men, were interviewed at a location of their choosing. Participants were all middle class Caucasian adults between 35 and 59 years of age. The majority of individuals were college-educated, employed, married and had one or more children living in the home. An attempt was made to enlist articulate adults who have had a variety of life experiences in order to find out if such well-functioning individuals report attachment to special possessions.

All individuals participated in an audiotaped, semi-structured interview of between one to three hours in length. An interview guide which appeared to best elicit an adequate description of individuals' experience with special possessions was developed during a pilot study (Myers 1984); questions were generated and refined during the pilot study using information from a combination of sources: previous research on special possessions, phenomenological research, personal introspection, and constant feedback from pilot study participants.

The interviewer's goal was to allow each person to describe her or his experience with as little prompting or interference as possible, while still maintaining a focus on the study of emotionally significant possessions. A flexible, sensitive approach was used, which fostered a sense of mutual interest in and curiosity about the person's experience; it was here that development of clinical interviewing skills over several years' time was of great importance. Spontaneous comments about special possessions were followed and explored. If the participant did not volunteer information initially, a temporal format was used, beginning with the question, "Many people have a blanket or teddy bear or some other thing that is of extra special importance to them when they are young. Did you have something like that?" Various qualities of the possession - what ages used, what it was like, how it was used, how often used, how it was acquired, what eventually happened to it, what its importance was, and etc. - were asked if not spontaneously addressed by the participant. Later periods in the person's life were subsequently covered in a like fashion, until both interviewer and participant felt the subject had been discussed fully and a sense of satisfaction and completion was apparent.

Although most participants conveyed a strong sense of involvement and enthusiasm during the interview, several expressed initial reservations about exploring their experience, for example stating that possessions "shouldn't be important," or were embarrassing to talk about because they were so important. Such expressed or implied reservations were always discussed without delay, and participants were most often easily able to continue with the interview. In a similar vein, beginning the interview with a person's early life often worked best, apparently because it was seen as more distant and therefore less revealing, and because talking about one's early bear, blanket or doll seemed to help the participant get in touch with his or her experience of special possessions in an emotionally immediate way.

Each interview was analyzed for thematic categories following a revision of the procedure described by Jones (1984). After transcription, each manuscript was carefully read numerous times, and possible themes and regularities noted. Thematic units were then grouped into clusters, and tallied for frequency of occurrence. A circular and painstaking process requiring continuing revision, checking back and attention to the exact descriptions given by each participant was used. In addition, reported special possessions were organized in various ways to facilitate further depth of understanding. For example, the succession of all special possessions and some of their reported importance was charted for each participant from birth through the present, as in the figure shown below. Such charting facilitated comparison of patterns within and between individuals. However, it is important to bear in mind that many different approaches appropriate to the material were used in order to obtain a fuller description of individuals' experience of special possessions.




It was found that well-functioning adults do indeed report attachment to a wide variety of special possessions at all ages, through the present. This finding would seem to indicate that such attachment is expectable and nonpathological, and confirms more recent theory and research. The median number of special possessions reported was 9, with only one person reporting almost no special possessions.

Of course, most of the emotionally significant possessions discussed differed in many ways from the child's earliest toy or blanket. Just as the teenager's or adult's body, intellect, developmental issues, and inner complexity change with maturation, so do their special possessions and the importance ascribed to those possessions. The term "special possession" was found to cover many kinds of experience for people, ranging from the more typical toys, books, clothing, vehicles and tools to pets and intangibles such as travel, music and relationships, e.g. her "children's childhood" cited by the woman in Figure 1, which she carries within. In addition, adults often reported attachment to more than one special possession at a time; this is in contrast to young children whose attachment is usually to only one particular possession, as parents have often learned to their chagrin, when the possession is lost or misplaced. Adults' multiple attachments are again seen to reflect their greater complexity relative to young children.

What does not come through in the word "attachment" is the intense, emotionally rich quality conveyed by those interviewed. They were generally eager to talk about their special possessions, often reacting with warm laughter, or at times with tears or sadness, which led to further discussion. Even those with reservations, expressed either directly or through anxious laughter, became very involved when talking about certain cherished possessions. Participants made clear the unique and deeply felt personal meaning with which they imbued their special possessions. It was obvious that such possessions are not static memorabilia, that they do not merely catch a moment for nostalgic reflection; at the time of their greatest importance, such emotionally significant possessions appear to reflect and influence the individual's growth, in a dynamic process. Perhaps an example will illustrate this process more clearly.

Example 1: A teenager's father died at the end of her junior year of high school. Shortly thereafter she decided to save her money and-buy herself a rather unusual sweater. Although she did not realize it at the time, this sweater had buttons similar to those on the dress worn by her favorite childhood doll. The girl wore or carried her sweater with her everywhere, regardless of the weather or occasion, for about one year. She then took it to college, but began to feel somewhat embarrassed about the sweater, which seemed a bit out of place in her new environment. She eventually put the sweater away and became absorbed in academic and social activities. Of the sweater's importance to her she says:

"It was my special cloak, my special shield, something that made me feel very safe, very caught up in something else, very connected to something else, something very warm. I clung to that sweater; it was there all the time. It was big, you could wrap yourself up in it. At the time I really needed to have people around me, and needed to shield myself from a lot of emotion. My friends were unemotive, wrapped up in school. Afraid I was going to 'lose it' if I started to get upset, overwhelmed. It was a tough sweater: 'I can teal with anything if I have my sweater."'

One gets a sense of the complexities involved. Like a young child, this girl responded to feeling overwhelmed and alone in a crisis by clinging to something soft, warm, and imbued with soothing qualities. Some of the sweater's physical characteristics even harked back to her earliest special possessions, which served a soothing function long ago. Yet, like the increasingly autonomous adolescent that she now was, this girl saved for and bought the sweater herself. She picked a sweater that was "different," that let her stand out from the others, yet was comforting. It was "there all the time" as her father was not, and wrapped around her as her father's arms were not. Yet gradually her attachment to the sweater faded to the point that it was no longer needed; she "grew beyond" the sweater, as she could now cope with her loss and comfort herself, and she went on with school and friendships.

The example illustrates well that a person's attachment to special possessions is a dynamic process. This process involves, first, the object; second, the individual and her or his situation and history; and finally, the interaction of the two, an individual's investment in a special possession. Winnicott used a spacial metaphor to describe this investment as occurring in "the third area of experience," which includes fantasy, creativity, play and imagination: those qualities which make us both unique and uniquely human (1953). The sweater was a sweater, and also more than a sweater. It had for this girl certain qualities it would have for no one else but her alone in her particular circumstances and time of life.

In addition, a pattern of shifts in the intensity of an individual's attachment to special possessions is a hallmark of the dynamic process described above. It is a process whereby the possession at first increases in importance and specialness for the individual, then maintains a certain importance for a period, and gradually fades or changes in importance to a greater or lesser degree. This pattern is also reflected in a reported change in attitude towards the special possession, often either one of "It means something different to me now" or of "I've gotten beyond that." Such is the case in the examples above and below.

Example 2: A man in early middle age bought the convertible he had always dreamed of, with money gained from an award for professional excellence. Although possessing the car was initially thrilling and satisfying, he eventually came to feel that it was "a pain in the neck," what with it's leaks and drafts, poorly fitting top, cramped seating, and etc.; these difficulties had at first influenced his attachment to the car not at all. His attitude towards the convertible changed, and by the time he eventually sold it, he felt glad he had owned it, but glad to see it go and a bit rueful about his former enthusiasm. As he did before buying the convertible, he has driven a sedan ever since. In his words, "I went through that stage. Maybe when you're young you can put up with that, but after all those years you ' re readY to try something else."

Example 3: A man in his late twenties decided to buy a convertible. Up until that time he had driven conservative cars, but decided to change and get something flashy and fun - as he described it, "a real sensation; everybody would turn and look at your car." His decision to buy the convertible happened during the same time as his decision to begin seriously courting women, as opposed to the casual dating he had done for the last several years; one could almost equate the car with "courting plumage." However, he eventually noticed that it was other young men who noticed and were impressed by the car, and that "the girls I knew were interested in me as a person; the car was no big deal to them." After marriage, he found the convertible did not fit with the demands of married life or his new job, and that he was no longer willing to spend time "fussing with the other guys, washing it, polishing it, fixing minor repairs, and a lot of little things like that. As your life changes, why your values change. It was just a phase I was going through. When I finally went to get rid of it I wasn't disappointed to see iv go."

The two examples above also demonstrate that it is not the similarity of the object- in this case convertibles --but the similarity of the importance of the object in the individual's experience which is primary. One man was dealing with the change of entry to young adulthood, another with the issues of middle age. The dynamic process of attachment and eventual decrease in attachment occurs for each, yet the issues involved are very different. Similarly, two other individuals discussed very different possessions which dealt with the same issues at the same age: one woman valued an art box as a teenager which was made for her by her father; a man cherished his homemade racers, and working on them, at times with his brother and father, during his adolescence. For these two individuals, both possessions signified and participated in development of competence, and a confirmation of self and one's developing skills during the crucial stage of adolescence. Again, different possessions, similar importance and function.

In examining individuals' attachment to special possessions, and the pattern and process of that attachment, it appears that emotionally significant possessions are a sign of and participant in a person's growth and change, as in the examples above. Such change can take two major forms. It can be situationals as in the trauma of a parent's death (Example 1), the changing circumstances of going to boarding school, and 80 on. Or the change can be developmental, occurring as a consequence of maturation, as when an individual enters adolescence, middle age (example 2), young adulthood (Example 3), etc. And of course, the two types of change, personal and developmental, often are intertwined, as when an adolescent on the verge of young adulthood goes off to college. The latter type of developmental change continues throughout life, with certain predictable crises of growth occurring in sequential and sometimes recurring stages for all well-functioning individuals (Erikson 1950). Since special possessions signify and influence growth, an individual's special possessions show the sequential regularities and at the same time the uniqueness of a person's maturation and development. Thus, the importance research participants ascribed to special possessions showed developmental similarities between individuals, as certain issues and changes occur fairly predictably at particular life stages. These patterns in individuals t attachment to special possessions are seen as reflecting the different developmental tasks and changing complexity and circumstances of the individual over time: a teddy bear would not satisfy the needs of the average adult, and a three-year-old cannot spend free time tinkering with a cherished European sports car. The patterns and similarities in the function and importance of individuals' special possessions will be described below.

The earliest stage of development, from about age six months to six years, has been described by Winnicott (1953), as discussed earlier. Much research has been done on children's attachment to special possessions. As noted, the first special possession serves a classic soothing, comforting function which is widely and popularly known. Most adults in this study could not recall their experience with their first special possession directly, which is not surprising given their-age at the time. Individuals frequently reported detailed information and anecdotes about the first special possession which had been told to them by a parent, usually mother. The possessions described were, in order of frequency, blankets, stuffed toys, and dolls. The importance ascribed to all these early significant possessions was that of comfort and security through a constant sense of a friendly presence. The special possession's function as described by research participants therefore agrees with that described in the literature (Hong 1971).

The possessions reported by research participants during elementary school years varied a good deal, as shown in Figure 2. Also, individuals began to report having more than one special possession at a time at this age, and to report some possessions with multiple meanings. What does not vary is the importance ascribed to possessions reported at this age. The watchwords are: go anywhere, do anything, pretend, and do together. People reported engaging in a great deal of fantasy play. There was also a trend for sharing and the ability to cooperate and do things with others to first become important at this time and to gain in importance with age.

The above fits well with what is known about the developmental tasks of elementary-school children. With a more secure and constant sense of self, the elementary school age child's focus changes. Erikson terms the main issue of this age one of "industry vs. inferiority" (1950). To successfully negotiate this stage, the child concentrates on learning, doing culturally prescribed tasks wells and learning to do things with others. It is also an age of "doing things in fantasy," due to the restrictions of age; thus the popularity of larger-than-life heroes, who can certainly accomplish whatever task is set for them. This is also an age when children try out roles and possibilities, and develop identification with significant adults and role models.



Examples of special possessions and their importance for adolescents is shown in Figure 3. Again individuals report a striking similarity in the importance of their special possession during this period, although the types of possessions themselves vary greatly. At this age important issues shift towards establishing one's autonomy, self reliance and confidence in one's abilities, while yet maintaining ties with family and developing peer relationships. Within this context, people spoke of developing real, unique, and self-chosen skills, and of accomplishing things in the real world of others. Recognition from and socializing with others was thus also reported as very important. The above themes and issues agree well with Erikson's formulation of the major task of adolescence as one of establishing a clear sense of one's independent identity and role in life in relation to others.

For young adults, gaining in independence and autonomy, the primary reported importance of special possessions changes to an emphasis on closeness and intimacy. Special possessions chosen reflect individuals' search for and commitment to another, and the awakening desire for growth through sharing one's life.



It is interesting to note the continuing importance of some of these special possessions through the present, signifying the continuing importance of that individual's relationship with another. This continuity contrasts with the relatively short-lived era of such possessions as the sports car and first necklace listed in Figure 4. The importance of the two contains elements of the teenage need for "daring" and "flashiness" to set one apart, which is missing in the remaining examples, and which latter examples are hypothetically later and more "mature" manifestations of the period. Also worth noting is that the need for intimacy can become an issue again at almost any time following young adulthood, and the ascendance of this issue is often mirrored in attachment to a new special possession, or the increased importance of an already valued possession. Finally, several people spoke of changing feelings toward a special possession with a change--for better or in their most important relationship, underlining the way in which attachment to special possessions mediates and is a part of an individual's most significant experiences.



For adults, new possessions of importance and new issues arise, often concurrently with other existing possessions and issues. Erikson notes that for the well-functioning adult what he terms "generativity" becomes productivity, creativity, developing something of worth to pass on to others. From individuals' self-report, as listed in Figure 5, it is clear that such concerns are primary for them at present, as is fitting for those in the midst of life. Here one notes a higher proportion of possessions which are currently of primary emotional significance to the research participants, again as would be expected.



In completing this listing, it seems appropriate to comment on a final stage of life which research participants could not yet discuss, that of old age. Some recent research has been done on special possessions of older people (Sherman and Newman 1977-78). Their work provides confirmation that attachment to special possessions is indeed growth-promoting, as they found that "lack of a cherished possession was associated with lower life satisfaction scores" (p. 181). Besides listing the types of possessions cherished by the elderly, they report a phenomenon found rather puzzling: that fewer old-old individuals report attachment to special possessions than young-old individuals. Such a decrease in attachment would fit with the dynamic process of attachment to significant possessions here described, and perhaps a signal that one has come to terms with one's life in general and one's approaching death, a "growing beyond" the need for a tangible referent in this last stage of life.


Although this article has focused on the patterns noted in individuals' attachment to special possessions, it is imperative to point out that the patterns are neither as r',id nor as fixed as they might seem from this presentation. It should be kept in mind that all summations of a special possession's importance used here, though they are in the participant's own words, are nevertheless much briefer and less full and complex than in the original text, threads pulled from the tapestry of the whole. The frequent intertwining, the waxing and waning, of several issues and/or special possessions at any one time in a person's life, are the background against which patterns appear. Special possessions may reflect and participate in the process of growth and contribute to certain developmental issues in a fairly regular fashion. However, the particular possession chosen by an individual is not predictable, as it is part of that person's unique experience at any given time.

There is much individual variation in the attachment to and importance of special possessions for individuals. There were wide variations in the intensity of feeling for special possessions, from quite shallow to very deep. Moreover, the manner in which significant issues can be expressed through possessions also varies. For example, some individuals attach exclusively to one special possession during a certain period, while other have several special possessions at one time, through which several issues or several aspects of one figural issue are expressed. Other individuals remain attached to one special possession for very long periods, that possession serving many different functions over time as the individual's development progresses; conversely, many people become attached to a series of special possessions, one per developmental issue or significant change, as it were. This paper has merely tried to point to some similarities evident in the many unique variations in individuals' attachment to special possessions.

A phenomenological approach to research need not rule out other approaches when appropriate, but rather can expand the researcher's options. For the type of exploratory study attempted here, a phenomenological approach was the one best suited. Indications for further research derived from the present study could take many forms. First, the limitations of retrospective data with a restricted population are acknowledged, and studies of individuals of various ages re their current possessions of special importance would be of interest. Such research would lead to more detailed understanding of special possessions. Studies examining individuals' behavior, as opposed to their reflection on behavior and experience would also add to knowledge in this area of research.


In summation, the ubiquity and dynamic nature of individuals' attachment to special possessions has been discussed, as have patterns in the importance ascribed to such special possessions. Again, it is important to point out that it is not the possession per se which is necessarily important, but the unique importance that it has for the individual at a given time in his or her development and experience. It would seem that the present research provides some confirmation that special possessions tap into the never-ending process of human development and growth.


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