The Psychology of Hoarding

By special guest writer, Allison Gamble

Many people find it difficult to understand what goes on in the mind of a hoarder. Most people can look at a broken appliance and throw it away without a second thought. To a hoarder, however, throwing away that broken appliance is an unthinkable as throwing out away a brand new appliance that was purchased yesterday. If you think you might be a hoarder, or are trying to help someone recover, here is some information that can help you.

Hoarding vs. Collecting

Experts make a distinction between hoarders and collectors. They specify that while hoarders find it difficult to throw anything away, people who are simply disorganized are more than willing to throw things away. While collectors can classify their collection, a hoarded stockpile defies any pattern of organization. People who are simply messy are willing to accept help and can throw things away, but hoarders want absolute control over anything leaving the house and are typically determined to pick through every box and bag looking for lost items.

Collectors are specific about what they bring into their home. They are typically at least somewhat organized with the collection, and the collection is presented and displayed. The home of a collector will not have narrow paths winding through mountains of indiscriminate “stuff,” but it may feature dolls or teacups on every flat surface throughout the home. While collecting can have its own issues, it is not the same as hoarding.

Hoarders, on the other hand, are willing to hold onto a much broader range of items. They do not limit themselves to any one genre, organization is non-existent, and the hoard can quickly overcome all other activities in the home. There is no neat display of treasured items, although hoarders are convinced that there are items of immense value buried within the hoard.

Progressing with age

Hoarding typically becomes more of a problem as the hoarder ages. The tendency to hoard can be seen even at a very young age. In young children it will typically manifest as an extreme attachment to things and the tendency to apply human-like characteristics to objects. As the hoarder grows, the problem may become more severe, especially as a person enters middle age.

“I might need that someday.”

One common statement heard from hoarders is that they might need an item someday. That the item is easily replaced at the local hardware store is irrelevant. That they will probably never need it at all doesn’t matter. That they will never be able to find it when they do need it does not cross their mind. They might need it someday and so they hold on to it. This can be difficult to understand, but to the hoarder it’s a legitimate concern.

Waste Not, Want Not

Another common characteristic of hoarders is that they can’t stand trash; that is, they can’t stand seeing things thrown out to sit in landfills and they hate to see anything go to waste. This is one of the factors that drives them to hold on to so many items. They mistakenly believe that they will someday use that item, and therefore it will not be wasted.

Well-meaning friends and acquaintances make this situation worse when they give them items rather than taking them to the thrift store. A hoarder will gladly accept almost anything, if only to prevent it from landing at the county dump.

They also might be very imaginative about the levels they can take recycling to. They can think of a million and one uses for that empty paper towel holder. The fact that it sits for years on end in a pile of trash does not bother them. They know that they might do something with it, when that elusive ‘someday’ arrives.

The Blind Eye

Hoarders possess the uncanny ability to become completely blind to the growing piles and problem. They can notice when a store is dirty or a restaurant has a few napkins on the floor, but at home they appear to be completely oblivious to the mountains of garbage that surround them. Most people who are hoarding don’t see a problem, making treatment extremely challenging.

Safety Nets

Hoarders also sometimes believe that they are building a safety net for themselves. They believe that holding on to items that they may need someday will create a financial safety net, as though the trash of today will become the treasure of tomorrow.

After suffering a serious loss, they may decide to hold on to physical things as a way of protecting themselves from the outside world. The devastating loss of a loved one through death or divorce can drive someone with hoarding inclinations to hide behind walls of junk in their own home. Sometimes these walls of junk will include mementos of the person they lost, making disposing of anything even more difficult.

Hoarding is a problem that typically does not go away with age. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be helpful by targeting specific relevant behaviors (e.g., shopping) and beliefs (e.g. “I should save all my magazines”) that contribute to the problem. Hoarders should not be shamed or ridiculed as this will only make the problem worse. It is also important that well-meaning friends and family members do not just clean out the hoard for them. Hoarding is a mental illness and it should be treated as such; and the sufferer deserves to be treated with care and respect.

Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the world of internet marketing.