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 :
- 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).
- Living spaces are cluttered enough that they can't be used for the activities for which they were designed (Frost and Hartl, 1996).
- Significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by the hoarding.
Hoarding has three components:
- Acquiring possessions compulsively - compulsive buying, or collecting free things.
- Saving all these possessions and never discarding.
- 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.
- 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
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
All these links are to external sites
- OCF's Hoarding Web Site Designed to provide information and assistance in a comprehensive and efficient way. Edited by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee
- Dr. Randy Frost discusses Hoarding ABCNews.com chat transcript. 22 October, 2001
- Compulsive hoarding Bio-Behavioral Institute
- Hoard mentality A well-written article by Jennifer Wells, from the Toronto Star, Jan. 26, 2006.
- Hoarding in the community The Fairfax County Hoarding Task force pages. Shows how the authorities view hoarding.
- Confronting compulsive hoarding by Chris Kelly. Target audience is landlords and property managers, contains information on tenant's legal rights
- So much clutter, so little room: Looking inside the hoarder's lair by Nina Bernstein. NY Times,December 31, 2003
- Hoarding not a usual compulsion BBC News, June 3, 2004
- Hoarding is hidden OCD ABCNEWS.com, May 22, 2001
- Saving the World by Fred Penzel
- Behind Closed Doors by Josie Rawson, CityPages.com 3 December 1997
- Stuff by Tyler Gore. An essay by Tyler Gore about his family's battle with their own physical possessions, and especially about his father (it's Tyler's belief that his father got lung disease from living in squalor). This essay was originally published in the New York journal "Literal Latte," won a Riggs Gold Medal Essay Award, and was cited in The Best American Essays 1998 anthology.
- The danger of hoarding by Joyce Cohen. An informative article on the USA Today website which acknowledges the seriousness of a hoarding disorder. It also includes a sidebar of tips for people who fall into the borderline hoarder category.