A Sideways View

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The Psychology of Hoarding

Whence the difference between healthy collecting and obsessional hoarding?

Remember the paperless office? One of the many unfulfilled promises of the web was that snail mail would die along with all that expensively produced and desperately unecological paper. Indeed the web seems to lead to more rather than less paper for many business people.

Paperlessness was not to be and business people daily have to fight the battle of the paper mountain. The internal and external mail, let alone what one prints from the web and emails, arrives at an alarming rate. It would not be unusual to receive between 50 and 200 paper messages a week from flyers to minutes of the meeting. But what to do with all that paper?

People interested in these sorts of things have distinguished between healthy and unhealthy responses to the influx of paper. The healthy response is supposedly file, act, or toss, while the unhealthy response is supposedly pile, copy, and store.

What the gurus say is first examine the document. Is it important? Will you need reference to it? If so file it in a way it is easily retrievable. If you don't need to keep a copy but simply act on what it demands, suggests, or recommends, just do it. Now! Then throw it away. Finally, a good deal of what you get simply requires losing—immediately. Bureaucracy, bumf, and balderdash need swift binning, even shredding.

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Of course, the unhealthy responses are first to pile incoming paper on the desk. You still see the cartoons with people with piles of papers in trays labeled IN or OUT. Some are labeled TOO DIFFICULT and others THROUGH-PUT. People pile because they believe they do not have the time to read the material and make a decision on it at the speed it arrives. So they pile it until they can get "around to it." Pile grows: things get lost; the urgent and trivial are not separated. And people become simply overwhelmed.

Worse still certain papers are copied, cc'ed, and re-distributed to increase the paper mountain, the urge to copy is a main factor in the problem. But so is the urge to store which is very different from the act to file. Storing is about hoarding; filing is about classifying.

At the simplest level the whole paper problem is about the psychology of hoarding. Hoarding appears to be a powerful instinct: many animals do it for their very survival. But there is a difference between hoarding and storing.

Pathological hoarding has been associated with an obsessive/compulsive personality syndrome. Hoarders, according to the theory, are likely to be very concerned with cleanliness, time-keeping, and order.

In DSM V there is a new disorder: Hoarding Disorder. The argument is that hoarding behavior usually has emotional, physical, social, financial, and even legal harmful effects. It is the quantity of their collected items that sets pathological hoarders apart from people with normal collecting behaviors. They accumulate vast quantities of possessions that fill up active living areas of the home or workplace to the extent that their intended use is no longer possible.

Hoarding is considered a disorder because the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning including maintaining an environment for self and/or others.

But the Freudians knew this 100 years ago. The Freudians argue that these attitudes start very early: in fact at the potty training age. Further difficulties at this time can lead to opposite behavioursboth rather abnormal. Thus the obsessional hoarder and miser as well as the compulsive spendthrift may have had a traumatic power-conflict over the potty.

Freud identified three main traits associated with people who had fixated at the anal stage: orderliness, parsimony, and obstinacy with associated qualities of cleanliness, conscientiousness, trustworthiness, defiance, and revengefulness.

The Freudian aetiology of hoarding theory goes something like this:

The child's first interest in his faeces turns first to such things as mud, sand, stones, thence to all man-made objects that can be collected (like paper), and the to money. Children all experience pleasure in the elimination of faeces. At an early age (around 2 years) parents toilet train their childrensome showing enthusiasm and praise (positive reinforcement) for defecation, others threatening and punishing a child when it refuses to do so (negative reinforcement). Potty or toilet training occurs at the same stage that the child is striving to achieve autonomy and a sense of worth. Often toilet training becomes a source of conflict between parents and children over whether the child is in control of his sphincter or whether the parental rewards and coercion compel submission to their will. Furthermore the child is fascinated by and fantasizes over his faeces which are, after all, a creation of his own body. The child's confusion is made all the worse by the ambiguous reactions of parents who on the one hand treat the faeces as gifts and highly valued, and then behave as if they are dirty, untouchable, and in need of immediate disposal.

If the child is traumatized by the experience of toilet training, he tends to retain ways of coping and behaving during this phase. The way in which a miser hoards money and paper is symbolic of the child's refusal to eliminate faeces in the face of parental demands. The spendthrift, on the other hand, recalls the approval and affection that resulted from submission to parental authority to defecate. Thus some people equate elimination/spending with receiving affection and hence felt more inclined to spend when feeling insecure, unloved, or in need of affection. Attitudes to money and hoarding are then bimodaleither they are extremely positive or extremely negative.

Families, groups, and societies which demand early and rigid toilet training tend to produce 'anal characteristics' in people, which include hoarding, orderliness, punctuality, compulsive cleanliness, and obstinacy. Hence one can be miserly about informational time and emotions as much as money. These effects may be increased or reduced depending on whether the child grows up in a socialist or capitalist country, in times of comparative expansion or depression, or whether one is part of a middle- or working-class family. Parents' belief in the Puritan or Protestant ethic may also alter money beliefs and habits.

It is merely embarrassing nonsense all this Freudian stuff? If so, one does have to explain the almost pathological hoarding that some people get up to. They know it is unhealthy and inefficient. They know the file, act, toss mantra is sensible. They often feel however pretty powerless to do otherwise unless they get help. Hence the consultants who offer a mixture of bullying and psychotherapy seem best at helping the pathological hoarder...as well as the merely disorganized.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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