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The Author Speaks

When Possessions Rule Your Life

Q. What are the most common causes of hoarding?

A. Hoarding is a complex disorder. There are deficits in information processing—problems with attention, categorization, decision making, and overly complex thinking. People who have hoarding problems pay attention to details and can easily lose sight of the big picture. Added to these deficits are the intense attachments to objects in their environment. The evidence is mounting that hoarding may be at least partly inherited. What is inherited may not be hoarding per se, but some of the information-processing deficits.

Q. How do people justify this behavior?

A. Most people with hoarding problems are conflicted. On the one hand, most recognize that the clutter and resulting chaos are problems. On the other hand, each of the objects they’ve saved holds a special purpose and meaning. Getting rid of them feels like torture, like losing a loved one.

Q. You say that hoarding may represent “creativity run amok.” Can you explain?

A. When most of us look at something like a bottle cap, the one prominent feature we focus on is its uselessness. We then relegate it to the trash. But Irene excitedly showed me a large clear plastic bag filled with bottle caps: “Look at these bottle caps, aren’t they beautiful? Look at the shape and color.” For her, these details gave the bottle caps value. The ability to appreciate the unusual detail of objects may reflect a kind of artistic creativity.

Q. In the popular imagination, hoarding is often associated with older people. Is that accurate?

A. Although hoarding does occur in children, for most people it begins in their early teens and slowly gets worse. Most don’t seek help till middle age, around 50. We seldom see hoarding that begins late in life, and most psychiatric disorders actually decrease late in life. It seems that hoarding does not; if anything, it seems to get worse. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, although there are age-related changes in cognitive flexibility, categorization and cognitive efficiency that may contribute.

Q. Does anxiety about mortality play a role?

A. Rather than mortality fears, there is concern about losing out on life. Irene expressed it very well: “Life is a river of opportunities. If I don’t grab everything interesting, I’ll lose out.”

Q. What other syndromes are associated with hoarding?

A. Attention deficits are very common in hoarding and contribute to people’s inability to organize their possessions and their time. Oddly enough, people who hoard tend to be highly perfectionistic. This plays out in a variety of ways, but usually results in decisions to save things rather than risk making a mistake by discarding them. Difficulty making decisions is an almost universal characteristic among people who hoard.

Q. How strong an association is there between hoarding and life history—for example, having lived through the Great Depression?

A. Our research has failed to find a link between material deprivation early in life and later hoarding behavior. We do suspect there is a connection between hoarding and traumatic experiences or important losses or chaotic or disruptive circumstances early in life.

Q. What cultural factors influence hoarding?

A. What little research has been done across cultures suggests that hoarding exists everywhere. We suspect, however, that it will be worse in places where there are a lot of relatively inexpensive objects that are easily available. Interestingly, hoarding appears to be worse in places where the living spaces are smaller, like large cities. Materialism may play a part in hoarding, but only a small part. Materialism involves using possessions as a way of presenting oneself to the world. People who hoard try to hide their possessions.

Q. Would moving change the hoarding behavior?

A. Hoarding problems don’t vary much based on changing circumstances. One exception is when someone with a minor hoarding problem inherits possessions from deceased family members. This can turn a minor hoarding tendency into a serious hoarding problem.

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