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Segment | Culture

Study Reveals Portrait of American Family Life Among Piles of Clutter

There's no doubt Americans are big time consumers. And Californians may well be the clutter champs. Researchers at UCLA spent years visiting people's homes. And somewhere under all those knickknacks, photographs, and half-empty shampoo bottles, they came up with a real picture of how we live, and it's captured in the book "Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century."

Val Zavala/Correspondent: High-end magazines filled with classy photos of professionally-staged layouts of lovely homes. But there's none of that in this book: “Life at Home in the 21st Century” is the anti-"Architectural Digest"; not "house beautiful" but "house bountiful.” It’s where typical, middle-class families live. Homes where cats jump on tables and laundry is stored in a shower stall.

Dr. Jeanne Arnold/UCLA Ethnoarchaeologist: This is the first study that offers a truly unvarnished, unstaged look at American homes.

Zavala: Professor Jeanne Arnold is an ethnoarchaeologist, the lead "ologist” of a dozen other UCLA archeologists, psychologists, and anthropologists who collaborated for ten, long years researching the book.

Ethnoarchaeology is the study of the social organization of present day societies on the basis of material culture. And are we ever a material culture! 32 Los Angeles-area families participated in the landmark study offering up their homes for the sake of science.

Dr. Arnold: We were interested in two-earner families that had school-aged children in the 8 to 12 bracket with either a second or third child in the family.

Zavala: The better to research hectic lives of how people really live. No staging allowed.

Dr. Arnold: Our society has the most material possessions per household in global history, so we're at the apex of the group of people that desperately needs rituals for cleansing.

Zavala: The direct result of rituals for acquiring. New things come with every holiday, birthday and anniversary. So families end up with huge amounts of stuff on counters, shelves, dining tables, stuff in garages, home offices, floors, refrigerator doors, stuff stacked on top of other stuff!

Zavala: So what kinds of things, what objects did you discover were accumulating between the front door and the back door of these people's homes?

Dr. Arnold: Toy! Toys! Toys! The United States has 3.1% of the world's children and purchases 40% of the world's toys.

Zavala: The field work alone took four years starting in 2001. Two videographers shot in each home for up to 18 hours a day: two weekdays, two weekend days. Families were instructed to ignore the cameras. A third researcher counted visible objects in each room.

Family photos on display: an average of 85. Home offices: typically, over 2,000 non-paper items. Garages: 50 to 700 objects. Refrigerator doors hold an average of 52 doodads. And remember, that’s just visible objects.

The researchers also kept track of where everyone was and what they were doing every ten minutes. Saliva samples were taken three times a day to determine what's called "cortisol levels,” an indicator of stress. Past studies about material culture allowed people to self-report information, resulting in that old research bugaboo, human error.

Dr. Arnold: We're not good at portraying what we really do. About 50 percent of families will claim that they eat together all the time. Families are actually eating together the same meal in the same room about one-in-six meals, one-in-six dinners.

Zavala: The participating families, numbered 1 to 32, are totally anonymous. But tonight, this family, who no doubt looks familiar, is revealing their identity.

Aaron Spicker: Hi, I’m Aaron, this is Sarah.

Merrill Spicker: Hi, I’m Merrill, and this is Kimberly.

Aaron: And we’re the most uncluttered family that is in the study, number 28. Oh, that’s not good.

Aaron [looking at book]: Remember the Barbie buckets?

Merrill: That could be ours.

Aaron: It is ours. “Kitchen interior during meal preparation, Los Angeles.”

Zavala: Photos of their home are throughout the book.

Merrill: Could be worse.

Aaron: It’s not worse! It’s worse now. We need to put some storage in there.

Zavala: The Spickers, like all the families, shot and narrated their own video tour. Even the kids did it.

Sarah Spicker [in home video]: I’m Sarah. I’m the one who’s filming! This is my living room.

Zavala: After describing the messiest parts of the house, the adults gave a saliva sample.

Dr. Arnold: Some of those mothers clearly had much higher cortisol levels, and the fathers almost never had higher cortisol levels.

Aaron [in home video]: Something I can’t stand anymore, and I’m having a problem with all the closets in the house.

Zavala: Aaron Spicker recently shot new footage and sent it to Professor Arnold.

Aaron [in home video]: Take three here, with a little bit better lighting.

Dr. Arnold: This is what he described as the jungle of the girl's bathroom. His girls are now teens.

Zavala: I’ve just counted 35 products or objects on this small bathroom counter.

Dr. Arnold: You're fast. When these girls were a bit younger, this bathroom was pretty tidy.

Aaron [in home video]: This is the home office. This is where I spend most of my time.
Dr. Arnold: So here's the office for family 28. Now this seems more notably packed with stuff.

Aaron: In all fairness, it's fuller, like I am. I'm fuller, but there's actually a system to the madness. It looks fairly chaotic, but everything has a place for a reason.

Aaron [looking at book]: Oh wait! That's our garage. I missed that one. That fridge is gone, but we have a fridge in the garage.

Aaron: I actually have a goal of getting one car back into the garage.

Dr. Arnold: 75 percent of Angelenos are parking their cars in the streets or in the driveways and they're using their garages as storage units.

Zavala: So basically, the old junk and the Christmas ornaments are getting shelter and your $35,000 car is out in the elements?

Dr. Arnold: Precisely! Precisely.

Aaron [looking at book]: Can you imagine a house without photos in it?

Merrill: No, because you're Mr. Photo.

Aaron: I struggle a bit with figuring out how a person wouldn't have the images of their family and maybe closest friends or whatever they like around them.

Dr. Arnold: Sometimes there are whole armies of framed photographs on cabinet tops. We'll find them in the bathrooms. We’ll find them everywhere. In Italy and in Sweden, we had sister projects going on. And there was much less personalizing that really stands out.

Zavala: And a favorite place Americans personalize is on the family fridge.

Dr. Arnold: So this is the Family 28 garage, starting with the old kitchen refrigerator that's happily still covered with magnets and pictures and all kinds of other stuff.

Aaron [to Merrill]: Sweetheart, you gotta learn how to close the fridge so that it doesn’t leak cold air.

Zavala: When the Spickers remodeled their kitchen, they got a new stainless steel refrigerator, so no more clutter on the fridge door, something Aaron and Merrill miss.

Aaron: There's something valuable there that reminds you because you go there every day, every morning, every night, you're pretty much there.

Merrill [in home video]: Sarah’s coming with me to help.

Merrill: Yeah, I actually miss that we have the stainless and we don't have the pictures. So it wasn't like, “Oh! Now we have this clean fridge.” It’s like, “Now we don’t have a place to put our pictures.”

Dr. Arnold: I can tell you quite a lot about a family from their fridge. “A tolerance for clutter” I would say is the best way of characterizing it.

Merrill: I keep saying I’m going to clean out my closet, and I just add to it and I haven't de-cluttered it or gotten rid of stuff. I just don't have the time.

Aaron [in home video]: Franklin can count by twos and what Sarah?

Sarah: Tie his shoes.

Aaron : We're blessed to kind of see the world in a way that the things we value we not necessarily “things,” despite the clutter.

Zavala: In the nearly nine years since they were studied, the Spickers still have the same furniture -- from an antique china cabinet to a modern display unit.

Aaron [looking at book]: There’s your non-dusty Barbies.

Merrill: My dad.

Zavala: Except for that kitchen remodel, it's essentially the same place. But another family changed everything!

Dr. Arnold: They completely remodeled their house after the study. So, no other household has done anything like this.

Zavala: amazingly different!

Rhonda Voo: Hi! I’m Rhonda.

Eric Alan: I’m Alan.

Voo: And we’re family number 1.

Alan: Come on in.

Eric Alan: Why did we do this? Because I was screaming that we had to get rid of all this crap.

Rhonda Voo: We did this because we saw ourselves on film in this study, and we thought, “Why are we living like this?”

Alan: That’s true.

Zavala: The home of Rhonda Voo, Eric Alan, and their three daughters was once a lot like the Spickers’ -- colorful walls full of family photos, a magnet-mania fridge, jam-packed shelves, and a tower of toys: 165 beanie babies, 22 Barbie, 56 miscellaneous dolls, 3 porcelain ones and 1, count ‘em 1, troll doll. But the dolls’ days were numbered.

Dr. Arnold: You know, people will rehab their kitchen or they'll paint their house but the house stayed the same. This was a real overhaul in their very way of being.

Alan: I guess we did do a big turnaround, didn't we?

Voo: Yeah.

Zavala: A few years after the study, Rhonda and Eric had it with the clutter.

Alan [looking at book]: Okay, that’s not us. That’s somebody else’s crazy messy house.

Voo: Oh, here’s a little bit more of the photo wall.

Alan: I remember at Bed, Bath and Beyond, I bought some plastic, round box, and I was so excited about it. And I said, “We can put all of our pictures in this box.” But then, it was in that closet and I would open up the closet and the box would fall out on me. It was like living in a yard sale.

Zavala: They moved out for a year and-a-half of construction, keeping only the front facade the same.

Dr. Arnold: The whole back of the home is this ultra-modern wall of windows looking out onto the backyard space with this pristine living room and their bedroom is up above here.

Alan: Not only do I not miss the stuff that's gone, I don't even remember the stuff we used to have. We got the book the first time, and I’m looking at the pictures and I’m like “We don't have that. We don't have that. Rhonda, look! The only things left in the picture we have are the kids themselves.”

Voo: Yeah, everything is gone.

Alan [looking at book]: Oh, that’s a nice one.

Voo: Yeah, that’s that wall that’s right there. All those photos that I love and kind of miss, but I don’t want to put back up again.

When we decided to move back into the house, I looked at every single object one-by-one and said, “Is this good enough to be back in the house?”

Zavala: Clearly, very little made the cut.

Voo [looking at book]: There’s the fridge!

Zavala: The family that once had 97 items on their refrigerator door now has a hidden dishwasher and fridge. The family photos are off the wall and in the computer. The toy tower stands only in videos of when the girls were little.

Dr. Arnold: There was a real generosity of spirit, I think, that we saw in the families who chose to participate.

Zavala: Would you, knowing your house, have allowed all these “ologists” to come in, as you did these people’s?

Dr. Arnold: I don't think so. I think I’m just too private of a person.

Girls [in home video]: That’s the end of our play!

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