Cosmology and astrophysics attest that the universe and its processes are impartial; it follows that nothing possesses intrinsic meaning—events and objects just are. Therefore, to achieve meaning, a decision must be made by an organism with sufficient and proper cognitive capacity to project significance onto something. To date, only one group of organisms has been found capable of performing this task: Homo sapiens.

Humans are meaning-making animals because we name, classify, and interpret what we sense and come to know. While epistemic construction is complex, the first step is to experience what we come to know and understand. According to historical tradition and current science, sensation and perception start the process. The philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1200s C.E.), in the tradition of Aristotle, famously wrote: “Nihil est in intellectu, nisi prius fuerit in sensu” (nothing is in the mind that has not previously been perceived by the senses). This empirical position (contra Plato’s theory of Forms) grounds all knowledge. In short, we take information in (perception and sensation), we attend to it (pay attention), then we interpret or attach meaning to it (hermeneutics). Often, the meaning is associated with an emotional state or trait and is encoded into the memory’s neural pathways corresponding to the intensity of its personal importance. In this way, we connect with or become attached to things in the world.

Knowing is both individual and cultural. Through personal introspection, one knows how one feels, but we all know how we

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are supposed to feel about family, country, and friends. The first kind of knowing may or may not be shared, but the second is, by definition, communal. Moreover, some emotional responses are influenced by external sources while others seem to emerge sui generis (unique) from deep inside ourselves. We are not without influences in all that we become, so something deep inside must first have been learned or associated as a sensate experience. That is why my sadness at the loss of a friend is preceded by knowing him.

Cultural and personal knowledge, in their concrete, abstract, and combined forms, have been widely studied. The work of the world-renowned psychologist Jean Piaget focuses on levels of developmental cognitive sophistication. Allow me an illustration: If I draw a vertical line intersected by a horizontal line and ask my students what I have drawn, I can expect more than one response. Someone will say I have drawn the letter “t,” another a “plus sign,” a third that I have drawn a cross. These are all relatively concrete learned responses, in this case meaning that a thing is what it looks like or what I remember that it looks like. But a fourth student hesitantly says that I drew just the beginnings of a compass without the direction points or degrees. This last interpretation is significantly more abstract and requires “movement away from” or movement beyond the stimulus itself. Imagination and knowledge about things not seen in the stimulus are required. These represent what is called differential perceptions. In one instance, Christian socialization provides a central symbol of faith while, in another, directionality or teleology drives the response. The individual or group Weltanschauung informs what people “see” in the world and is vital to understanding who they are and what they do.

When people become attached to objects, we sometimes look for possible transference. Why do so many people confer emotion and gifts onto their pets, or erupt when a favorite television show is preempted? People are connected to non-human things, sometimes in intense and substitutive ways. Writer and historian William Trattner attests that “…Americans still invest more money in animals than they do in children” (1999, p. 222). Living in an object-relations world, we love our cars, jewelry, memorabilia, religious appurtenances, and projects sometimes more than each other. We lavish emotional resources on them, particularly during periods of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. Sometimes, magical thinking “explains” an escape from potential harm, which we attribute to

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luck, a deity, or other external factors. They brought us from fear to safety, we think; they were comforting transitional objects for us.

Some object-cathexes are societally shared, like a nation’s flag or national anthem; others are specific to smaller groups, such as Sacred Books and lands. However, many are personal, as mentioned above, supplemented by children’s teddy bears, dolls, and blankets. With object constancy operating, we recognize our fascinations so well that we reject similar but different others. In mature adulthood, transitional objects change, but some people become pathologically attached to unusual favorites that become sexualized fetishes. For others, money, power, possessions, or a special person become objects of choice.

Motivational questions surround excessive devotion to good or bad objects. Illustrative of the latter might be over-selecting symbols of death or devotion to objects that produce pain in ourselves or others. An example of the former is working effectively toward a healthy marriage. Motivation is sensed as a “moving toward” urge powered by an underlying impetus. Motives may be born of yearning or need due to a deprivation state, a vulnerability, or a wish or desire. Imagery in fantasies can play into motivating urges as well. We project pieces of ourselves onto the object of our attachment as we incorporate pieces of the other, becoming one. If the object of our attraction is particularly unique or satisfying, it could very well intensify what could become a symbiotic bond.

Humans have historically become attached to objects both animate and inanimate that have served some purpose for us. My idealized self may be a televised hero archetype, as in, for example, a former Olympian god turned Superman. Antiquity affords stories of amazing punitive divinities and demons as well as deities who suffered under the power of greater gods. These possess themes of sadism, self-pity, or victimhood. According to Stanley Krippner (2007), tribal shamans were (and are) considered conduits between the community and the gods, and wear specific clothing, headdresses, and parts of animals while they ritually dance and self-drug into altered states of consciousness. Priestly classes and royalty dress in role-specific colors and styles reflecting their social positions and powers. Without vestments and other accouterments, the ritual feels superficial or even false. Rivers and caves were historically considered sacred because they either conveyed ancestors to or held them in the underworld. Some clerics continue to wear a cross or crucifix, which they sometimes kiss. Medical people wear

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stethoscopes and white coats to signify who they are and their place in society. Uniforms and guns identify warriors and police. These exteriorities are one with those who utilize them since the signification of their identity is not merely who they are but how they fit into the group in which they live.

Sometimes our object-relationships have not introjected the totality of an “all good” or “all bad” other, leading to classic ambivalence. With children, for example, we may think them cute or marvel at their development, but we may simultaneously consider them an oppressive burden, a problem that needs to be solved through punishment. Much abuse can arise from ambivalence and, according to psychohistorian Lloyd deMause (1988), children may become “poison containers” for their caregivers. If this occurs, an animate object perceptually transforms into a reified inanimate thing, becoming dehumanized and objectified. With this transformation, the caregiver may believe the child deserves every type of abuse. Destructive pieces of the caregiver, perhaps memories of a personal trauma, are projected onto the child, often without guilt in the perpetrator. The consequences for the child are well documented and widely known. There is a fundamental similarity between this type of objectification and that required to justify destructive behavior toward members of myriad outgroups in the world. An attraction toward others, together with toxic feelings toward them, is not uncommon.

Importantly, human relationships with objects were once thought to be “objective,” that is, their attributes belonged to them. In other words, if someone was thought beautiful, the factors comprising beauty were considered inherent in the beautiful person. The observer brought nothing to the event. But, at least since the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s (1929) process philosophy in the modern era, the observer has been understood to change the observed in some way. The mere presence of another person alters a situation. So, when we gaze at people we think beautiful, much of our learned cultural schemata about beauty is projected onto them. This interaction effect is essential to attraction. I say of my friend that “we are both alike” and “he reminds me of myself.” The former is a wish that omits its opposite and the latter is projected mirroring. Both are profound expressions of fusion.

When observing nature, we look at non-human beings and sometimes perceive ultimate tranquility or beauty in the flight and song of a bird, though nature is not performance art—it is doing

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nothing but surviving. Hidden from us is the constant subsurface strife—one organism fleeing from or preying upon another, the desperate scrambling for food for energetic replication. Marine biologists realize the whale fish changes morphology at least three times in its lifetime and may look vastly different during any of its three phases (Ben Turner, August 12, 2021). Following this transformative theme, Kafka projected morphological changes onto a human character in his allegorical novella first published in 1915, The Metamorphosis. Spectators, fiction writers, and religionists do not perceive in the same way a scientist does. Often, they do not understand each other. The entomologist realizes that a male honeybee, following an ejaculation blast, loses its penis as it falls into the female while he dies. A corresponding religious metaphor might be the male bee’s ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the continuation of the community.

So, why do I love my pet rock, my lucky charm, that person, that temple’s beauty? Because something within it, about it, or regarding my wishes or needs that impels me toward it because I feel lost and anxious if it is not nearby or attainable. Somehow that picture of my deceased grandmother is accompanied by wonderful memories of her. I know the picture is not her, but it is the closest I can get to her. I say I love the rock, the ring, and the picture, although I really love what they represent. If I can hold on to that, I can make it through this nonteleological life and perhaps even carve out some meaning in it.

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  • deMause, Lloyd (1988). History of child abuse. Journal of Psychohistory, 25(3).
  • Krippner, Stanley (2007). Humanity’s first healers: Psychological and psychiatric stances on shamans and shamanism. Revisita de Psiquiatria Clinica, 34, supplement 1, 16-22.
  • Trattner, William (1999). From poor law to welfare state: A history of social welfare in America. The Free Press. (Original work published in 1974.)
  • Turner, Ben (August 12, 2021). Shape-shifting fish that confounded scientists for 100 years spotted off California coast. Live Science.
  • Whitehead, Alfred North (1929). Process and Reality. The Free Press.


Richard Booth

Richard Booth, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Black Hawk College and retired Adjunct Professor of social and behavioral sciences at the University of Maryland. He currently does mental health work for the American Red Cross and is a member of the Psychohistory Forum, the International Psychohistory Association, as well as numerous other professional groups. He has published in this journal and numerous others. Dr. Booth is a licensed psychotherapist who can be reached at

How to Cite This:

Booth, R. (2022). I love my pet rock: Attachment to people and things. Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 54-59.

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