The Obsessive Hoarder

Fight the clutter! Read on for signs of hoarding behavior, ways to tame your inner clutterbug, what you can do to help someone with too much junk, and more.

Cutting Clutter: The Problem of the Ugly Coffee Cup

There's a little bit of hoarder in all of us

My brother recently posted a series of complaints on his Facebook page about the ugly coffee cups in his life.  

  • He doesn't like them.  
  • He doesn't need them.  
  • He doesn't want them.  
  • But he can't seem to throw them away.

In my family, we call this problem "surviving by bluff".  You pick up something that seems like a good candidate for the rubbish pile.  You're about to throw it away.  And then . . . What if . . . All these potential scenarios start coming to mind.  

  • What if the dishwasher is full and you need another mug?  
  • What if you have a big party and need more mugs?  
  • What if you break a bunch of mugs?  You'll have to buy more and that would be expensive.  

And then there's the moral edge to it.

  • It is wasteful of resources to get rid of perfectly good items just because we don't like them.
  • Thriftiness is good. It seems wrong to throw away things that still work just because you've replaced them with something better.

Decluttering as a Cognitive Process

Throwing things away is a cognitive process. It's about making decisions about the relative utility of keeping something or discarding it. It also has emotional components. We buy souveneirs not for their intrinsic value, but because seeing them evokes memories. Some objects just make us smile.  Or used to make us smile when we first saw them. Some objects are beautiful and we look at them and they evoke a feeling of appreciation. Our posessions—especially in a culture of plenty—say something about who we are.

Hoarders—people who collect have a type of obsessive compulsive disorder characterized by the excessive collection of things and the inability to discard them—tend to have specific cognitive deficits. They seem indecisive, and have a hard time deciding whether it is worth keeping something or not (Frost & Shows, 1993). Theyexaggerate the monetary and positive emotional value that objects have. In addition, making decisions about discarding things evokes negative emotionsin hoarders. The anxiety and confusion generated by trying to discard objectscan become so great that hoarders go to great lengths to avoid it.  

The problems of discarding unwanted items gets bigger the more 'stuff' you have.  So the harder it is to throw things away, the more stuff you get. And the more stuff you get, the harder it is to throw away.  

Experimental studies show that when people with clinical hoarding syndrome sort objects, they take longer than people with obsessive-compulsive discorder and of non-clinical controls, they were more anxious about the task, and they sorted items into more categories. In other words, clinical hoarders had a hard time making decisions, they thought about their decisions in more complex, less decisive ways, and the process was emotionally taxing.  

The Packrat in Most of Us

Many of us have more clutter in our lives than we want.  Luchian, McNally, & Hooley (2006) did a study of college students to find out if those who had more clutter—packrats—showed the same kind of cognitive problems with decision-making that more serious hoarders do. These were Harvard students, not a clinical sample. They were asked to do a simple task: sort a bunch of worthless (low value) items into categories.  Reading the list of items, it sounds like the clutter in my son's closet:

"a pencil, an upbeat fortune from a fortune cookie, a cocktail umbrella, a small package of moist cleansing wipes, a button with a written slogan, two 37-cent stamps, a pen with the university’s name on it, a kiwi-flavored gummy candy, a pair of interlocking metal puzzle pieces, a stack of Post-Its, an old Newsweek magazine, a brightly colored ‘‘stretch’’ frog, a small Hershey’s chocolate bar, a travel-sized bar of soap, a box of black-and-white film, a rubber ball, an individually wrapped fortune cookie, a birthday candle, a smileyface sticker, and a die."

Students were asked to put them into categories, told that there was no 'right' way to do it, and given as much time as they wanted.

Thinking about lab tasks and categories

When I teach research methods, I often tell my students to use the "Barney principle". If you remember that big, purple dinosaur, you'll remember that one of his big phrases was "Use your imagination!"  

Imagine yourself in this study. What do you have to do? What would you feel?

When I think of myself in this study with this pile of stuff in front of me, I imagine feeling confused. Just like I do when facing a big pile of clutter in my house or office. I'm a Harvard student—I am both intelligent and want to do well.  But there's no obvious way to sort this. 

  • Do I do it by use? Food/toys/office goods/misc?
  • Do I do it by future use? Garbage/play/give away/put away?
  • Do it by similarities of items to each other? What is a dice similar to? Is the fortune similar to the fortune cookie? Or to the magazine? Or to neither?

In other words, the first task of the participants was to determine what the task is. The second task was to generate a system for categorization. The third task was to decide which item fits in which category. Then you would probably have to modify your system because it was probably not inclusive to start with and there will be things that just don't fit.  

People who were packrats and non-packrats differed in how they approached the task. 

  • Packrats sorted items into more categories—increasing the number of decisions they have to make. They created an average of 5.6 categories instead of 4.6. Given that there were only 20 items, this means packrats had 3 or 4 items in each category rather than than 4 or 5 in the non-packrats' piles.  
  • Packrats took more time to make decisions. In fact, they literally took twice as long to sort the 20 items as their non-packrat peers.
  • Packrats found the task more difficult.  

The number of categories people create is important. The more categories people had the more time it took to complete the task, the more stressful people found it, and the harder it was to do.

Helping Ourselves Declutter

Although some of us have stronger packrat tendencies than others, there are take-home messages for all of us.  


When you are starting to de-clutter, try starting with a simple 3 category system.  

  • Things to toss
  • Things to give away
  • Things to keep

Things to give away should be things that don't have value to you, but will have value to someone else. Books you don't plan to read again, clothes that don't fit or you no longer wear, and things associated with old hobbies can all be included in this category. You might also include things that you have replaced with better items. We have a bin for such items where old items are put immediately when replacements are purchased or when clothes are tried on and found not to fit. Knowing someone else will find a use for something you don't want can ease the pain of parting.  

Things to toss. The 'give away' pile is not a trash pile. If Goodwill can't sell it, then it is probably trash. Things that are broken, need mending, or are obsolete should go to the trash. Old electronics can be recycled for parts or materials. Old batteries are collected at major electronics stores. Old paper can be recycled.  Paints, solvents, poisons, and things like motor oil can often be turned in to community collection points.  Step one is deciding they need to be thrown out. Step two is tossing stuff that can just be tossed.  Step three is taking hard to toss stuff and finding out what to do with it.  The internet is your friend: there are collection places for almost everything.  

Things to keep.  Now you have a pile of things to keep. But it should be much smaller than the pile you started with. At this point, take the stuff you know what to do with and put it away. Your pile is smaller still. NOW you need to start making real decisions.

Bottom line:

Simplifying the decision making process is probably much more important for people who have a hard time de-cluttering than for those who don't.


  • Break the task into small, simple decisions
  • Make the easy decisions first and take care of them
  • By the time you're at the hard decisions, there are lots less to make and that pile of stuff should be much smaller

All the research says that the more decisions we make, the worse we get at them. When we're tired, it's harder to make good decisions, we are more emotional, and we become less decisive. That tells us something too. Don't start by de-cluttering your basement.  

  • Start with something easy: a desk drawer.  If you do one small task every day, you will have fewer thing in your life.  

Afterwards . . . A personal note

At the end of my first year in graduate school, a fire swept through our apartment and we lost half of our posessions. There is nothing like seeing most of what you own thrown into a sodden, dirty pile in the middle of the street. In a twist of fate, the fire occured the morning we were moving to a furnished house. Everything we owned except our clothes was stored in a garage to get rid of the overpowering smell of smoke.  

A year later, we moved into an apartment and opened the boxes. I learned a lesson that has stayed with me since. There were a few things I was really happy to see, that brought a smile to my face, that I had forgotten and really wanted, or sparked a flash of memory. But most of it was just 'stuff'.  Things I hadn't missed for a year and didn't foresee needing in the future. I packed most of it away and tossed it.

That taught me something important. Memories are precious.  Stuff . . . usually less so. Over and over when you listen to victims of tornadoes, floods, and other disasters, you see people who have lost everything but express overwhelming gratitude for what they have left: their lives and their loved ones. That's something to remember.  

The study:

Luchian, Sara A., Richard J. McNally, and Jill M. Hooley. 2007. Cognitive aspects of nonclinical obsessivecompulsive hoarding. Behaviour Research and Therapy 45(7): 1657-1662.