Americans tend to move a lot. According to Gallop, the United States is second only to New Zealand on its level of residential mobility—the frequency of changing one’s residence, either in the same city or town, or between cities, states, or communities.
High mobility can be a blessing. People who move around find new opportunities, better jobs, higher salaries, etc. According to the sociologist, William H. Whyte, organizations and big companies encouraged this high mobility, so they could more easily shuffle people around to serve the companies’ needs. High mobility, however, can also generate difficulties and problems.
Kurt Lewin, a pioneer of modern social, organizational, and applied psychology, moved from Germany to the U.S. to escape the Nazi regime, which led him to make some astute observation about the U.S. He observed that the high mobility results in shallower social ties—which in turn lead to easier time severing these ties—a behavioral tendency my co-author Lucas Keefer and I refer to as relational disposability.
In a highly mobile society like the U.S., people who relocate for work, school, or simply to “wipe the slate clean” tend to jettison replaceable objects when they move. Leaving these objects behind, especially if done repeatedly due to moving a lot, may put people in a mindset that objects are disposable. This mindset can even extend to people.
We tested this possibility in four separate studies, which were published in the journal Personal Relationships. Participants, both online and in the laboratory, completed questionnaires measuring willingness to dispose of objects and relationship partners. In follow-up studies, participants were prompted to imagine scenarios that involved the probability of relocating.
As we suspected, we found a similarity between the way people perceive their belongings and the way they view their relationships. People who moved around a lot tended to see their objects (furniture, books, devices, even one’s car) as more disposable. The view that objects are disposable was, in turn, generalized to an attitude that social relationships are disposable as well.
In other words, the perception of objects as disposable was positively linked with perceiving friends and romantic in the same way. A personal history of greater residential mobility—more moving around—was associated with these views being even stronger.
Imagining moving from place to place, increased people’s willingness to dispose of both objects and personal relationships—or people’s relational disposability. These findings support the causal link between moving and disposability.
Many people in the U.S. see moving around as a way to move up in life. Willing to move for school or a job often means higher chances of being successful. Our findings, however, show that moving may also have negative outcomes—such as social ties being seen as more superficial and disposable.
Developing superficial ties when you’re in a place only temporarily makes sense. However, as prevalent as moving is in the U.S., relational disposability might be the typical rather than atypical way of relating. A broad phenomenon, in which everyone tends to look at relationships with co-workers, friends, and social network members as disposable.
Such attitudes take a toll on the overall quality of people’s lives and our society. Research suggests that only deeper high-quality ties provide us with the kind of support we need like love, understanding, and respect. You need these very close ties to feel safe and secure and function properly. If social ties are seen as disposable, you’re less likely to get what you need from your network, which can negatively affect your mental and physical health as well as your longevity.
What to do then? Push back against the tendency to treat others as replaceable. Maintain your ties, treat them with respect, and invest in relationships. Make this your new year’s resolution.