Keeping the Clutter

Demystifying hoarding

Posted Aug 24, 2012

Hoarding is the subject of numerous television shows and popular attention. It is also the subject of new and exciting research that is identifying factors that may contribute to the development and maintenance of hoarding. 

What is hoarding and why do people do it?

Hoarding is when someone saves items due to fear of losing them or attachment to them. It is considered hoarding when the amount of clutter interferes in the ability to use the room for the intended purpose, such as a bedroom that is so cluttered that no one could sleep in it.  Between 2%-14% of adults may engage in hoarding.

Why do people hoard and how does it get so severe?

1) Over-attachment to objects.  Individuals who engage in hoarding often report that they become very attached to objects and sometimes they report a sense that objects have feelings, much like humans.

2) Difficulty with decision making.  They have a hard time distinguishing  between things that are important to save and those that are not important to save.

3) Their brains are different. New research (Tolin et al., 2012) suggests that the brains of people with hoarding have more activity in particular parts (anterior cingulate cortex and insula) when deciding which of their posessions to discard and lower activity than normal when deciding about items that did not belong to them.  These areas of the brain are involved in emotion, decision-making, and problem solving.  This may indicate that there are biological differences associated with hoarding, which may be related to their difficulty discarding possessions.

4) Trauma.  Many individuals who engage in hoarding have experiencing a traumatic event.  It is possible that hoarding is a reaction to a traumatic event.  However, many others do not link the onset of their hoarding symptoms to trauma and still others do not report having experienced a traumatic event.

5) Compulsive buying.  Seventy-five percent of individuals who engage in hoarding also engage in compulsive buying.  This means that they feel a need to buy things, even if they do not need them.  This, combined with difficulty distinguishing between what to save and what to throw out, can contribute to hoarding.  Other people hoard free items that they pick up throughout their day or through going through others' trash.

6) Lack of insight.  Individuals who engage in hoarding often do not have insight into the severity of the issue.  In this manner, it is very different from some other disorders, such as OCD, where many people are able to identify the degree to which the disorder is impacting their lives.

7) Secretiveness.  Hoarding is very secretive so it is easy for it to get out of control before others become aware of it.  If family members recognize the level of the problem, they often try to just throw out the hoarded items.  This is only a temporary fix as it does not actually treat the sources of hoarding and therefore the individual who hoards just builds the hoard back up.  Discarding the hoard can also anger the individual who hoards and cause even greater strain between the individual who hoards and their family members.

8) Lack of treatment.  Because of the lack of insight and secrecy involved in hoarding, few people seek treatment for it.  There are also few therapists who are trained in treating hoarding and existing treatments do not work as well for hoarding as they do for many other disorders.  This means that once someone is hoarding, they are likely to continue to hoard.

New research is moving the recognition and treament of the problem forward and giving hope for successful treatment to the many people who hoard items.

For the perspective of the adult offspring of someone who hoards, see Outside the Wall.

If you or someone you know engages in hoarding, below are some resources that may be helpful to you.

Information and treatment:


For children of hoarders:


Copyright Amy Przeworski

Follow me on Twitter @AmyPrzeworski

About the Author

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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