Disorganized collection growth

When I was a teenager, I lived in a nice house with my mother, stepfather and three younger brothers. The contents of the house were what you would expect if you took a normal house, multiplied the number of things in it by ten, then shook it very hard. Almost – a greater proportion of the things were in boxes or containers of some kind than you would expect by chance, and also there were narrow trails cleared along the important thoroughfares. For instance there was a clear path to the first few chairs in the living room, from which the more athletic members of the household could jump to most of the other chairs.

This state of affairs interested me. From what little I had seen of other families’ houses, it was pretty unusual. Yet looking at the details of of the processes which produced it, I couldn’t see what was unusual. I don’t remember my exact thoughts, but I figured it had to be something that affected the relative inflow and outflow of stuff from the house. But it wasn’t that we had way more spending power than other families, or that we kept a lot of garbage. Most of the things in the house were useful, or would be if you had a non-negligible chance of finding them. It seemed like my family bought usual kinds of things for usual kinds of reasons. A set of lego for the children to play with, a blender because sometimes we wanted to blend things, a box of second hand books or two because they were only 50c.

The last one there looks a bit problematic, but is not that unusual. People often buy marginally valuable items because they are cheap. There were a few other things like that that looked a bit problematic – a tendency to keep drawings, an inclination to buy several shirts if you found one that was good. But nothing that should obviously cause this massive phase transition into chaos.

In the end I’m still not sure what the dominant problem was, or if there was one. But I can tell you about one kind of failure that I think contributed, which I also notice in other places.

Suppose you have a collection of things, for instance household items. You want to use one, for instance a pair of scissors. Depending on the organization of your collection of household items, it can be more or less tricky to find the scissors. At a certain level of trickiness, it is cheaper to just buy some new scissors than to find the old ones. So you buy the new scissors.

Once you have the new scissors, you add them to your collection of things. This is both the obvious thing to do with items you possess, and the obvious solution to scissors having apparently been too rare amongst your possessions.

Unfortunately adding more scissors also decreases the density of every other kind of thing in the collection. So next time you are looking for a pen it is just a little bit harder to find. If pens are near the threshold where it’s easier to get new pens than find your old pens, you buy some more pens. Which pushes a couple of other items past the threshold. On it goes, and slowly it again becomes hard to find scissors.

In short, a given amount of organization can only support being able to cheaply find so much stuff. You can respond to this constraint by only keeping that much stuff, for instance borrowing or buying then discarding items if they are beyond what your system can keep track of. Or you can respond by continually trying to push the ratios of different things to something impossible, which leads to a huge disorganized pile of stuff.

Another place I notice this is in writing. Suppose you write a blog post. Sadly it is a bit too long for the average reader to remember a key point in the second paragraph. You suspect they will forget it and just fill in what they would expect, consequently missing the whole point. To avoid this, you emphasize the point again in the second last paragraph. But now the post is even longer, and it is not clear whether they will also remember another key part. So you add some more about that point in the conclusion. But now it’s so long the whole argument is probably too hard to piece together, so you add a bit of an outline. Perhaps this eventually reaches an equilibrium in which all the points have been repeated and emphasized and exemplified so much that nobody can fail to understand. Often it would nonetheless have been better to just quit early on.

I think I had a better list of such examples, in a half written post which I put in my collection of blog drafts. Unfortunately my collection is so sprawling and poorly organized that it seemed easier to just write the post again than to find the old one. So here you have it. It’s tempting to add this post too to my blog draft collection and look for it again when I find some more things to add, but no good lies in this direction.

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  • Ely Spears

    This post has many interesting connections to complexity theory and search/retrieval algorithms.

    One solution that jumps to mind: perhaps compute the Fourier transform of your family’s scissors and just store the coefficients ūüôā

  • Some scientists say, it’s all a matter of quantity, the more you collect, the more likely you are to become frustrated when looking in vain for something that should be there and then, at some point, you simply take the stuff an put it in the bin. Unfortunately, this “tipping point model” does not seem to work with me. So, you could say, I’m not at it, the tipping point that is, I still tolerate chaos, however, I did so for years now, and find myself engulfed in a growing mess, but: I won’t change it and judging by the main point of this post, to be found in the second paragraph from the bottom, neither do you. So I wonder, whether this tale of the tipping point is simply a myth…

  • Robin Hanson

    It seems to me the issue here is more about indexing. If you have good ways to categorize things, and an assigned place for things in each category, you could find things later. Some minds balk at standard categories, knowing that there are many legitimate ways to categorize each thing. Nonetheless, picking some standard category system and sticking to it can make all the difference.

    • Ilya Shpitser

      An index is only a logarithmic cost on top of the cost of storing what you are indexing as well (which means multiple indices for different purposes are not ouf of the question).

    • ¬†http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Organized-Stephanie-Winston/dp/B0046LUJPA/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344053006&sr=1-1

  • TruePath

    Are you sure the real difference between your family and others was in the amount of stuff and not merely the location of the stuff.

    Many suburban families have a large collection of junk that is kept in attics, basements and garages.  It is simply social pressure to show off their living spaces that enforces a relative lack of cruft in the areas you normally see.

    Indeed, it’s my experience that one benefits (in terms of total effort expended finding useful items) from keeping a fair amount of semi-organized cruft around.¬† It’s simply that most people find it psychologically distasteful to live in such a state.

  • Michael Vassar

    There are obvious parallels to every type of accumulation.  For instance, it seems plausible that many or most sciences, and possibly science as a whole excluding some branches of physics, suffer from this.  Societal wealth may also suffer from this, with wealth metrics such as GDP and official inflation numbers rigged to show permanent GDP growth instead.  Even religions seem to do this, adding complexity to simple messages (do onto others) or techniques (sit, quiet your mind, and let go of the feeling that you control the state of the world) and effectively rejecting them in favor of less attainable goals (attaining, for instance, Christ-consciousness or non-symbolic consciousness).

    To a substantial extent, people like to feel that they are making fairly long-term progress towards “their goals”, hence the popularity of games from World of Warcraft to Farmville. ¬†What those goals might be is usually not explored in much detail, and it seems to me that people are prone to impose setbacks upon themselves, for instance, via wasteful spending, when faced with the risk of actually accomplishing their goals, for instance, economic security and effective retirement (social climbing would help. ¬†Turns out you can rise in class and thus stay relatively poor, but that requires success on a more complex metric than just money). ¬†

    My guess is that the healthiest way for most people to deal with this drive is to have more children, and that child-rearing is the evolutionary goalfrom which this set of drives is fundamentally co-opted.  

    • Michael Vassar

      Another response, it occurs to me, is the development of organized zero-sum competitions, which systematically maintain a collection of constant size but hopefully constantly rising quality.  The major downside of this response is that it is highly dependent upon the ability of either judges or nature to create selection gradients which correspond to our informed conception of value, and not just the symbols of value which we intuitively identify (by analogy, wealth, not the money that represents wealth until you start printing money).  

  • CF027A4F

    With the Internet as it is, I find it easier to search for stuff on the web and download it again, rather than sift through my local collections, which are badly indexed after having been accreted organically, with no particular plan or order.

    In fact, even transferring stuff can often turn out to be faster from and to the net, than it is when using a usb device to move it from one computer to another; but that’s not quite the same issue, just aggravates the first one.

  • gwern0

    >  I don’t remember my exact thoughts, but I figured it had to be something that affected the relative inflow and outflow of stuff from
    the house.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to appeal to phases at all: just the difference in flows or the relative flow matter.

    A house has a fixed amount of space; if the flows are not exactly matched, the house will eventually either empty out or explode outward at the speed of light, as it were.

    Any amount of clutter can be explained solely by the relative flow staying the same over a certain period of time, which is one’s default assumption.

    (What’s the root cause of the relative flow? Dunno. Perhaps a disinclination to clean up or sentimentality or sunk costs.)

    • Hook

      That’s a lot like defining people’s weight issues as a difference in the inflow and outflow of energy.¬† It’s true, but it is also unhelpful.¬† It’s more helpful to investigate why someone’s metabolism is such that they have a small outflow of energy, and I think that is what Katja is trying to do here.

      Incidentally, I noticed this exact phenomena happen in my parents’ house.¬† It was even explicitly acknowledged that the goal of aquiring a duplicate tool was to increase the density of that tool, thus making it easier to find one.

      • gwern0

        ¬†That’s (mostly) true, and it’s also helpful if you’d think about it differently.

        For example, it stops us from asking a wrong question like ‘why is there a phase transition in weights? Maybe what happens is that you’re normally thin but then you flip over into a new phase where each additional ounce makes it harder to go get healthy food or engage in exercise and this exponentially compounds on itself!’ Well, no.

        We could disprove this idea without any critical thought just by looking at empirical data dealing with the many testable predictions such theories make, like population-wide surveys of body weights and noticing that there’s no obvious bi (or tri or…) modal peak corresponding to a ‘thin’ (clean) phase and a ‘fat’ (hoarder) phase; unfortunately, there is no such population-wide survey of clutter that I know of, so we must use critical thought.

        It also suggests practical solutions: making relatively small shifts in the two flows, to reverse the trend gradually, as opposed to heroic interventions which don’t address the root imbalance.

        Somehow, I don’t think better indexing would help very much. (By what fraction did the house have more stuff in it than others? And what fraction of the goods in the house were complete duplicates?)

  • arch1

    Thanks for the very entertaining and useful post.

    My gut tells me that the most important responses to organizational challenges aren’t technological, but my brain tells me that with wireless tags becoming real cheap,at some point it should be possible to render everything of long term interest easily findable – just tag it (or leave on it the tag that was there at purchase time).¬† With category metadata, it should also be possible for the search solution to help with physical organization (by e.g.¬†telling you a carefully selected place to drop each item when you are done with it, so that all of your scissors will end up in one pile, near the other stuff you tend to use with scissors),.¬† Plugins would provide richer functionality:¬† Guided cleanups, garage sale reminders and guidance, shopping lists, cat burglary facilitation (oops:-), etc.

  • Paul

    It is interesting how people try to solve all of their problems by adding something instead of taking something away.  

    They can’t hear the music so they turn up the volume, when the real problem is that they are surrounded by backgound noise.

    Get rid of your background noise.  Embrace minimalism.  It will change your life.  It has changed mine.

    • Martin-2

      We are not all suited for the same heuristics. But thanks for the suggestion.

      • Paul

        It isn’t a matter of being suited for a heuristic, IMO. ¬†Everyone should have as many tools in the toolbox as possible. ¬†I am a big systems thinker, but sometimes reducing a problem is the way to clarity instead of thinking about it from a systems perspective.

      • ¬†But surely you should strive to de-bias your heuristics when advantageous. Katja’s piece demonstrates the pitfalls of the add-more heuristic, fueled by the availability bias and loss aversion. (Yet, she’s rationalized her biases as a principle of “disorganized systems growth.”)

    • ¬†The failure to throw things away is really the heart of the matter. I find the blindness to this the most striking feature of this discussion. The disinclination to delete is a big problem authoring clear text: the failure to realize that less can be more; the failure to delete when editing. The failure to delete seems more important than the tendency to add–to try to prioritize chicken and egg.

      Is it sunk costs? Loss aversion? Or the habits of accumulation fostered by the capitalist system?

  • Mark M

    I used a similar strategy with nail clippers as your scissors example.¬† I always kept them in the bathroom and always knew where to find them.¬† I got married and my wife didn’t have this same habit, so clippers were often elsewhere.¬† Then we had kids, and finding the clippers became a chore.

    So I bought about a dozen nail clippers and put them in my wife’s Christmas stocking one year.¬† I thought this would solve the problem, but no, the clipper supply dwindled over time and I still had to go looking again.

    Then I bought my own damn pair of nail clippers and forbade everyone, including my wife, from using them.

    Problem Solved.

  • ¬†

    At a certain level of trickiness, it is cheaper to just buy some new scissors than to find the old ones. So you buy the new scissors.

    It seems you buy the new scissors because you don’t adequately consider opportunity imposed by future searches. The availability bias caused you to overweight the cost of scissors searches.

    In the end I’m still not sure what the dominant problem was, or if there was one.

    It’s seem that your family failed to adopt a no-clutter ethic. This would serve to moderate the biases that caused them not to consider the search costs in buying another material object.

    The same applies to writing style. If you find a piece of writing is too cluttered, you should rewrite it to impose a different organization rather than add to the clutter.

    Clutter is really excessive near-mode–a failure of far thinking. (http://tinyurl.com/7d2yh6x)

  • Some day technology may help with this. You’ll be able to throw scissors, pens, etc. into a closet full of smart goo. Then return to the closet anytime, ask for the item, and the closet will spit it out for you.

  • JSA

    There are two critical habits that lead to a chaos-free household.¬† First (as Robin alludes), you stick with the principle of¬†“everything has a place, and everything in its place”.¬† Second is that you throw away anything that you don’t absolutely need, and you periodically purge even those things that you need, just to see if you really needed them.

    For many years, I lived a life of pristine simplicity and intoxicating freedom from clutter by following these two simple rules.  I had all the elbow room and space for pacing that I wanted, and I could even do cartwheels in any room of my house if I wanted.  That is, until I met my current wife.  It started during our first weeks of dating, when she demanded that I buy a bed (the floor is so much better for the back, but I was lovestruck, so I acquiesced).

    In the fifteen years we’ve been married, I increasingly trip over random useless physical objects, pull in my shoulders to squeeze through tight spaces, deftly prance between open spots on the floor, and am continually bewildered by a proliferation of things that I don’t even know what possible purpose they could ever serve.¬† One of my wife’s favorite places to shop is container stores, and she is always finding amazing shelves, drawers,¬†and nested boxes.¬† Boxes within boxes.¬† What could be more useless than a box, other than a box within a box?

    I have identified two factors that cause this state of affairs to become permanent; perhaps both factors were operational with your mom and stepdad.¬† The first factor is psychological: when you’re settling into life with a new partner, you don’t want to be the only one putting things in their right place, because then you would feel like you are being taken for granted or taken advantage of.¬† And you don’t want to be a domineering jerk and nag your partner to do her fair share.¬† So organizing the household becomes a¬†stand-off, where you both play chicken, and *nothing* gets done.¬† The second factor is that clutter eventually accumulates to the point where there is simply too much stuff and too little space to reasonably put everything in a designated space.¬† The first principle becomes *impossible* to follow, short of buying a second house (which we are in the process of doing).

    Today on the drive to her summer camp, my daughter casually mentioned that she feels uncomfortable in houses that aren’t cluttered.¬† Perhaps that is a third factor — upbringing can “corrupt” a person to be comfortable only around nested boxes of useless junk.¬† I try not to judge.¬† I can’t do cartwheels in the house, I often stub my toes, and I don’t understand why we have 90% of the stuff that we have, but it’s totally worth it, if that’s what keeps them happy.

    • Nancy Lebovitz

      Also, if more than one person’s stuff gets intermingled, then decluttering takes consultation, and that adds a need for coordination which makes clearing space even more difficult.

  • Guest

    Overcoming Bias has gone ‘meta’…bravo! One of my favorite posts on this site, ever – from a long-time reader.¬†

  • Scott H.

    Time spent organizing is typically time well spent.  

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  • nitnot

    The Flylady says is more succinctly:¬†” You can‚Äôt organize clutter; you can only get rid of it, like a diseased cancerous tumor. Purge it from your life and you will find out what living is all about.”¬†

  • TerjeP

    It’s all about search cost. And I suspect that the search cost for some people is higher than for others. For instance my mother had a real knack for rembering where things were.

  • Having finally read Kahneman’s book, I’d say this disorganized collection growth problem is definitely loss aversion/endowment effect. I apply this insight to verbosity and irrelevance in writing in “Avoiding irrelevance and dilution:Construal-level theory, the endowment¬†effect, and the art of omission.” —¬†http://tinyurl.com/62zwpr2

    An analog to the far-mode solution for verbosity probably applies to collection growth.

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  • Stephen Diamond

    The contents of the house were what you would expect if you took a normal house, multiplied the number of things in it by ten, then shook it very hard.

    The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual may classify this as a hoarding disorder.