Karen Winterich, Penn State University – Taking A Photo Can Help You De-clutter and Donate

We all need to de-clutter our homes.

Karen Winterich, associate professor of marketing at Penn State University, discusses a new trick to get people to give away more of the stuff they have trouble parting with.

Professor Karen Page Winterich is a Frank and Mary Smeal Research Fellow and Associate Professor of Marketing at the Pennsylvania State University. Winterich conducts research in the area of consumer behavior, with specific interests in the effects of consumer identities and emotions on consumer judgments and decision-making. Her research focuses on examining the effect of cultural and moral identities on charitable giving and brand evaluations as well as the impact of emotions on consumer decisions and consumption. Her research has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Marketing, Journal of Applied Psychology, International Journal of Research in Marketing, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, among others. She currently serves on the Editorial Review Board for Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, and Customer Needs and Solutions. She teaches marketing courses, including advertising and promotions to undergraduate students as well as a doctoral seminar consumer behavior. She also teaches a course on sustainable behavior among consumers, firms, and society as part of Smeal’s Sustainability course offerings. Prior to joining Penn State University, she was on the faculty at Texas A&M University.

Taking A Photo Can Help You De-clutter and Donate


The average American has at least 50 unused items in their home, including clothing, electronics, and toys. Think of a special t-shirt from a concert or sporting event you attended or perhaps your grown child’s favorite childhood toy.  Even though these items are no longer worn or used, you may be reluctant to part with them because they have sentimental value – the special memories you associate with them.

Recent research finds that a photograph can preserve the memories associated with these items and increase the likelihood people will donate them.

When signs for a donation drive in university residence halls suggested students take photos of sentimental items they no longer used before donating them rather than just asking students to donate, there was a 15 to 35% increase in total donations. Other studies found similar effects of memory preservation increasing donations of unused sentimental items. Memories can be preserved by a photograph or even just writing down the memories associated with the item.

In other words, people don’t want the item itself – they just want the memories the item represents. When the memories associated with that favorite shirt or toy are preserved in a photograph, people no longer fear they will lose the memories and are able to let go of the item.

However, when we asked people to take a photo of a sentimental item before selling it, the photo did not increase the likelihood of selling the item. People were turned off by the idea of placing monetary value on these items and were unlikely to sell sentimental items regardless of whether they considered taking a photo or not.