Via Negativa, Hoarding Principles and Minimalism

Nassim Taleb argues that the best way for a person or organization to become antifragile (something that gains from setbacks and chaos rather than just survives) is to first decrease their downside. How can you eliminate the downside? By avoiding it. The act of not-doing something stupid, has a neutral or positive effect. It's improvement through substraction. Substraction also leads to focus. And this is what minimalism is all about.

Readers of Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb should be familiar with the concept of ‘via negativa’ (literally 'negative path'). ‘Non-doing’ is an active action and has side effects like doing. ‘Non-doing’ is generally unnoticed and undervalued. However, not doing something negative, has a neutral or even positive outcome.

Smart avoidance can therefore improve a situation. The requirement, however, is understanding or imagining how the inverse action would effect the situation. A concrete example certainly everybody would agree with, is not-smoking.

Hoarding Principles

Two other concepts, cognitive biases, I would like to introduce before connecting them with minimalism are loss aversion and the endowment effect. Both were introduced in Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Loss aversion in a nutshell: It refers to peoples tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. I would call it the first Hoarding-principle. The endowment effect is a hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things when people own them. That’s the second hoarding principle. The experiments underpinning the concepts are very interesting reads.

Choices

From a functional perspective, objects are utility. The decision of buying or owning something relies on the a-priori estimation whether the object would provide utility. We don’t know, and usually we are not taking other people as reference (except for signalling purposes) since we believe we’re so special, read Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness.

So, choices are not-buying or buying (let’s simplify rent to buy). Given a finite amount of money and time, we need to select objects that have a good utility prospect. We are exploring the space of goods. We are window shopping. Endless possibilities, choices, nudged by ads, friends, idols and so on. Got something? Good. Let’s integrate it into your life.

Integration

Depending on how accurate you were estimating the long-term utility value of your acquired object, it paid off, or it was throwing money out of the window. The spectrum ranges from introspective consumers to buyers on a FOMO basis. Sure, personal traits and influences play a big role here, but exploration is required. How else can we determine if it provides utility?

But here we should remind ourselves to the first concept: Via Negativa. What if we would not buy into the desire. Would it have a positive effect on our life? Clearly, it would go unnoticed, even if it was an active decision of not-buying. Can you imagine your life without the object, but something else taking its place with more utility value? What would this other object be?

Exploration and Exploitation

It’s tough, and trying it out is the only choice. Otherwise we would be stuck not-buying anything new, because of fear of being disappointed. In other words, we’d be stuck in a local optima. It’s the balance between exploration and exploitation. Exploration refers to buying new things, without a-priori knowledge whether it provides the desired utility value (taking risk), and exploitation refers to the long-term benefit of utility value provided by the object (not-taking risk, but might be stuck in a local optima).

Hoarding Bias

In Minimalism, we ask ourselves the question, do I need this, does it make me happy, do I really want to focus on this, do I want to maintain it? In the rational case after an evaluation period, we decide to keep or sell it. This happened to me recently with a fitness tracker which I decided to sell (it didn’t make me happy, and I didn’t like to wear it all-the-time).

However, as I referenced earlier, the hoarding principles are deeply integrated in us humans. The cognitive biases of loss aversion and endowment effect bias us to simply keep our stuff. With both, a just-in-case (loss aversion) and a ‘it’s more worth than it’s actually worth’ mindset (endowment effect). Overcoming this, is the path towards minimalism. Put the objects in doubt into a box, and put it in the attic or basement. If you don’t miss it, get rid of it. Even throw it away (it’s worth less then you actually think).

References

I wrote an article about minimalism, which offers questions you can ask yourself when you consider buying new things. I hope both articles inspire you to become a more conscious consumer and owner. And please share the article if you enjoyed it.


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