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An Exploration of the Psychology of Hoarding

written by: Stephanie Torreno • edited by: Jacqueline Chinappi • updated: 5/12/2011

News programs and television shows have explored the habits of hoarders, or people who excessively collect useless or hazardous items. What exactly is hoarding, and is it a disorder itself or a symptom of another condition? Continue reading for a detailed explanation of the psychology of hoarding.

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    The Psychology of Hoarding

    Looking at the strange behavior known as hoarding, we see that it is a complex mental health disorder that involves excessively saving items and having the inability to throw them away. People who hoard have problems with organization, too. Hoarders collect unneeded or worthless items, piling them in every area of a home and creating dangerous, and few, living spaces. Although they hoard common items, such as newspapers, magazines, and junk mail, hoarders often have emotional attachments to the items they save. They experience discomfort when others touch or borrow the items. People who hoard animals create unsanitary conditions that pose health hazards to themselves, the animals, and others.

    The causes of compulsive hoarding, as it is sometimes called, are unclear. Researchers believe hoarding occurs on a spectrum, with some individuals being harmless pack rats and others acquiring so many items that their homes become dangerous. People with a family history of hoarding have a genetic predisposition to this behavior. Current thinking regarding the causes of hoarding includes cognitive impairments, maladaptive beliefs, and avoidant or impulsive behavior. Although hoarding is currently considered a subtype of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the classification is under debate.

    While some people with OCD do hoard, this behavior is not specific to OCD. One study, in fact, concluded that hoarding could more likely be associated with other anxiety disorders than with OCD. In neuropsychology studies comparing individuals with OCD to those who hoard, hoarders reported greater indecisiveness on a self-reported assessment. Researchers also ranked hoarders as more indecisive than OCD patients who do not hoard. Compared to non-hoarding individuals with OCD, compulsive hoarders additionally have a decreased ability to categorize possessions, an important skill in maintaining organization. Neuropsychological tests also show that hoarders have lesser abilities to sustain concentration, decreased nonverbal attention, greater variability in reaction time, greater impulsiveness, and poorer memory.

    Hoarding is further distinctive from OCD in several ways. Hoarders usually do not have negative or unwanted thoughts about their behavior; people with OCD most certainly do. When a person who hoards is forced to throw away items, the distress they feel is mixed with grief rather the anxiety felt by someone with OCD. Acquiring items additionally gives a hoarder a sense of pleasure, an emotion that usually does not occur from the thoughts and behaviors of OCD. Finally, hoarders do not seem to respond as well to behavioral therapy and medication as do patients with other forms of OCD.

    Ongoing research is being conducted to understand the biological and environmental factors that may cause hoarding. Looking at the psychology of hoarding, this is not currently considered a disorder distinct from OCD in DSM-V. New understanding of the similarities and differences between OCD and hoarding may lead to the classification of this condition as a separate mental health disorder.

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    References

    International OCD Foundation. (2010). Retrieved August 10, 2010, from www.ocfoundation.org/

    Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2009). Hoarding. Retrieved August 10, 2010, from www.mayoclinic.com/health/hoarding/DS00966

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