Why do some people hoard stuff?

hoardersI like to periodically clean up the spaces around me because I hate clutter but we all know people who seem to be minor or major hoarders, reluctant to give or throw away things that they have not used in years, are unlikely to ever use, or are even totally useless to them. They seem to not even be bothered by being surrounded by piles of stuff or to even notice it.

If I had been asked to guess the causes of such behavior, I would have suggested that part of the reason is undoubtedly thriftiness, the feeling that one is throwing away something that may have some value however small, while another reason is fear that one might in the future need exactly that item, and would regret having thrown it away.

But it seems that a different reason might be dominant and that is that hoarders have poor decision-making skills. Although the number of hoarders studied was small (just 24), researchers said that they scored significantly poorer on the “Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, which tests subjects’ organisational skills by requiring them to arrange differently patterned cards into categories.” As a result they tend to create too many categories for disposing of items, thus feeling overwhelmed with too many choices and making decision-making hard. This results in them soon getting exhausted, and giving up by taking the easy route and keeping everything.

The article suggests that the problem with treating hoarders is first that they have to realize that there is something wrong. Once that is achieved, encouraging them to throw things away by telling them that the pain of loss will be fleeting turns out to be not that effective. One may need to go deeper into their cognitive processes, and train them to develop mental flexibility and attention.

I realized when reading the article that I had been operating using a decision tree when clearing up stuff. I find that for me, the optimum number of categories for decision-making is three. I first divide everything into three categories: keep, throw, and not sure. This is very quick because even the slightest hesitation on an item makes me throw it into the not sure pile. I then go back to the not sure pile and sort them into keep and throw. It turns out to be easier to decide the fate of the not sure items in the second go round because in the course of the first round I have developed a sharper sense of what to keep and what to throw.

Once I am left with just two piles, the keep group gets sorted into two categories: easily accessible and deep storage (i.e., basement) while the throw group now gets sorted into another three categories: destroy, recycle, or trash. It is actually quite quick.


  1. Mano Singham says

    ‘Destroy’ means it goes into the shredder or is otherwise destroyed beyond recognition or retrieval. ‘Trash’ means I just throw it away.

  2. AlexK says

    I think what might play a role also is the propensity of some people to develop strong emotional attachment to objects…
    This is what makes clearing out basements etc a nightmare for me 😀

  3. Lofty says

    I don’t mind clutter so long as there’s a clear and safe pathway through the room. But every few years you have to dig right to the bottom of a pile and throw out/give away etc all the stuff that no longer stirs the interest. After 17 years in the same house I have way too much stuff to move house easily. If I pick away at it I might finally reduce my stuff to a sensible level, sometime before I’m due to go to a retirement home. But the books will be the last to go.
    I live in equal fear and excitement at seeing a good garage sale!

  4. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    It’s deeper than that for some:


    ” people who hoard have a hard time processing information normally, and that when they have to make a decision their brain goes into overdrive — specifically, those parts that are involved with identifying the relative importance or significance of things”

    When everything is important, or you burn too many brain cells trying to evaluate what is important enough to keep, you probably give up trying to make the decisions.

  5. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    Many people bog down because they are trying to make too many decisions per item. They pick up a shirt with a rip in it and try to decide whether to fling it, fix it, keep it, or give it to charity as is and if so which charity or maybe give it to Suzy who makes cute stuff from old shirts or …. with each object. And after about 10 objects they have decision overload and are mentally exhausted.

    I use a straight binary decision tree …

    Trash versus not-trash first to clear out as much as possible. Trash by definition is junk mail, unfixable items, old shopping lists, etc. Something that no one except the reycling company can make further use of.

    After the trash is in the recycling bin or the dumpster, another binary decision gets made.

    Keep versus don’t keep.

    Then put the stuff to keep back where it belongs and the rest is either Craigslist or for a local charity.

    People with hoarding disorder sometimes can set rigid rules such as keep X old jelly jars in case you need one, but only that number. Keep X years of bank records and discard the older ones.

  6. garnetstar says

    My sister is something of a hoarder, not pathological (yet). She can barely walk through the shoulder-high piles of books on the floor of her house, not one of which she has ever read or even looked at.

    Her house is small, so she makes my parents and other sister (who live in a distant state) store her things at their houses. She won’t allow my parents to throw away a stack of books she had in junior high school that she hasn’t looked at in 45 years. When her boxes of college papers (essay, exams, etc.) were destroyed in the flood of my sister’s basement, she was angry that they was thrown away.

    She doesn’t particularly agonize over decisions. I’ve always thought that it had something to do with emotional security: the items make her feel like she’s still living in her past or childhood, a simpler, less stressful time, or something.

    Any research suggesting that that might be a factor?

  7. Mano Singham says

    This behavior may well be due to a different cause like the one you suggest and looks like it has the risk of becoming pathological. This article may help explain the phenomenon and this article suggests that she may need to see a mental health professional before it gets too bad.

  8. garnetstar says

    Thanks so much, Mano, those articles are really helpful. For one thing, one of them pointed out that living without basic necessities, such as heat, can be a symptom. My sister has lived without hot water for at least five years, explaning that she can’t really afford to get the water heater replaced because it’s oil-heated. We’ve all offered to pay for it many times, but she hasn’t done it. She just adapted to it.

    It does sound like it’s heading towards pathological, really already there, perhaps, so I will try to get her some help.

  9. anne mariehovgaard says

    I think you’re missing the first step: some people are squirrels, even if they’re not hoarders – we just manage to keep it under control as long as our brains work as they’re supposed to. For us, throwing something away is always a conscious decision, something we have to think about – we never have that “Oops, I threw away the box with the instructions on” moment 😉 And unlike you Mano, we’re not that bothered by clutter or even a lack of order/tidyness in general – a lot of us don’t really notice it (when tidying up the place, I have to actively look for stuff that’s in the wrong place – teacup on the floor? maybe I should move that) I’m not a hoarder, but I think I could easily become under the right (wrong) circumstances. The cognitive problems described are common in conditions like depression – and to a certain extent in older people.

  10. Enkidum says

    @garnetstar At the risk of psych-analyzing strangers based on a two-paragraph description on the internet, I would say your sister is definitely tending towards pathological, if not there already. Free advice, which probably worth what you pay for it: your family may need to move towards “tough love”. In particular, there is no reason why they need to store your sister’s stuff, and if they were actually firm about this it might force a confrontation, which though unpleasant might be a very good thing. Of course it would be very, very unpleasant and would require a lot of commitment – essentially it would be an intervention of sorts.

  11. garnetstar says

    Thanks, Enkidum, I appreciate it. We’ve never thought of her as pathological, but when I wrote it all down to post just now, it struck me how much we’ve been ignoring. And that article, we never could figure out why she’s gone for years without hot water, just wrote it off to being “eccentric.”

    I must do something now, think I’ll start with talking to my family about tough love and professional help for her.

  12. Blueaussi says

    It is possible that the reason she doesn’t want to get the hot water heater repaired is because she doesn’t want to let a repairman in the house. She’s embarrassed or otherwise not ok with strangers seeing her clutter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *