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Hoarding behavior

Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., estimates that 2% to 3% of the population has OCD, and up to a third of those exhibit hoarding behavior (Cohen, 2004).

3-part definition of clinical hoarding :

  1. The acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value (Frost and Gross, 1993).
  2. Living spaces are cluttered enough that they can't be used for the activities for which they were designed (Frost and Hartl, 1996).
  3. Significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by the hoarding.

Hoarding has three components:

  1. Acquiring possessions compulsively - compulsive buying, or collecting free things.
  2. Saving all these possessions and never discarding.
  3. Not organizing and maintaining all the saved possessions.

People who hoard keep things for the same reasons as anyone else:

  • For sentimental value - emotional attachment or to remember an important life event.
  • For utility value - the item is, or could be, useful.
  • For aesthetic value - the item is considered to be attractive or beautiful.

Frost and Gross's 1993 study of hoarders found that the most likely justification for keeping an item was future need ("I might need this someday"), followed by lack of wear or damage ("This is too good to throw away"), sentimental saving ("This means too much to me to throw away"), and lastly potential value ("This may be worth something someday"). The difference between people who hoard and people who don't, is that hoarders apply these values to a far larger number of items.

A hoarder will also be very concerned about maintaining control over their possessions. Well-meaning family members who try to help by sorting and purging the clutter on the hoarder's behalf are likely to find their good deed has an unanticipated result: an increased effort on the part of the hoarder to protect their stuff from "unauthorized touching". (Frost, Hartl, Christian and Williams, 1995)

If you hoard, you probably have problems organizing and maintaining all your possessions. First of all, there are so many of them! A hoarder can have problems categorizing - necessary for organizing - seeing each item as unique. The result is chaos and clutter that causes stress and isolation.

Part of the problem for hoarders is that they find it hard to make decisions about what to do with their possessions - e.g. whether to keep something or throw it away. A hoarder may feel that something bad will happen if they discard an item or it may feel like a part of their identity will be lost. If a hoarder has a past experience of throwing something out and regretting it later, this is likely to increase their distress (Warren, Ostrom, and Rosenfeld, 1988).

To avoid these uncomfortable feelings, or distress, a hoarder is likely to choose the "safe" option - postponing the decision, or saving everything (Frost and Gross, 1993). However, by never discarding, the doom and gloom theories are never disproved. Some hoarders find recycling to be less difficult than discarding.

Hoarding is a public health and safety risk. Hoarding increases the risk of fire because piles of newspapers, magazines, clothing and rubbish provide a plentiful supply of combustible material. At the same time, the piles make it more difficult to escape from a fire by blocking possible exits, as well as making it harder for rescue workers to reach you.

Hoarding also increases the risk of structural damage to the building, a consequence of the sheer weight of the hoarded items.

References

  • Cohen, J. (2004) The dangers of hoarding. USA Today, 19th February, 2004
  • Frost, R.O., & Gross, R.C. (1993). The hoarding of possessions. Behavioural Research and Therapy, 31(4), 367-381
  • Frost, R.O., & Hartl, T. (1996). A cognitive-behavioral model of compulsive hoarding. Behavioural Research and Therapy, 34,(4), 341-350
  • Warren, Lynda W., Jonnae C. Ostrom, and Anne H. Rosenfeld. (1988) Pack rats: world-class savers; hanging on to things and stuff creates clutter and conflict. Psychology Today, 22,(2), 58-6

Further reading

Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding by Fugen Neziroglu, Jerome Bubrick and Jose A. Yaryura-Tobias is a self-help book that explains the psychological aspects of why you hoard and provides practical techniques for managing the problem. You can find our review of Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding in the Resources section.

More information on hoarding

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