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When It Is OK to Be a Hoarder

We shouldn’t demonize our occasional natural tendency to act like a packrat.

Key points

  • Occasional hoarding in response to scarcity is different from classical hoarding.
  • Occasional hoarding is ingrained in our being and part of what it means to be human.
  • Recognizing the difference between occasional and classical hoarding helps us understand ourselves.
Photo courtesy of Thomas M. Mueller
Chinese export teapot: Collection of the author.
Source: Photo courtesy of Thomas M. Mueller

At times, we are all hoarders, but few of us are pathological. What is going on here?

When gas prices soared due to the Colonial Pipeline fiasco, people stood in line to fill their tanks, need it or not. Today, gas prices haven’t yet fallen back to pre-Colonial debacle levels, but the fear that they will climb again has lessened. Few judge that standing in line for gas is needed.

Now, however, there is a new threat—inflation. Reportedly, people have recently begun squirreling away food just as they did at the start of Covid. Why?

We humans are built to protect ourselves, and saving resources is part of that picture. Keeping a full tank of gas during scarcity and buying excess food when it might later rise in price are just two of the ways we do this. We are hoarding—not in a general way, but a specific one.

This select kind of self-protection is hard-wired in our biology. In a nutshell—yes, this refers to the squirreling analogy—our present decision-making ability evolved over millions of years and is influenced by multiple factors gathered along the way. For example, one is our affect at the time we make the decision. If we’re feeling good, we might make one choice, but if we are feeling bad, it might be another. Anxiety, uncertainty, and fear impact our decision as well. These issues sway our judgment about how much gas to pump or how many cans of beans to put in our basket.

This is the point. Uncertainty about how much of each resource is available in the future alters our decision-making process. Essentially, insecurity regarding a necessary resource leads to fear, which contributes to buying more than is needed for the immediate future. General anxiety heightened by this scarcity scenario can make the tendency to hoard specific resources worse.

These influencers on our decisions—affect, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear are difficult (or even impossible) to overcome because they are ingrained in our psyche. This is why many people are now buying more food and, before that, pumping more gas.

The thrust of this column is simply to say that humans who hoard select items due to a specific stimulus are just acting like normal humans who are preprogrammed to do what is necessary for them to function in the best possible way. They are not classical hoarders by any means. Knowing and recognizing the difference is essential.

Classical hoarders collect meaningless items for no apparent reason. Finally, their household is filled with items that are throwaways to most everyone else. This causes distress to those living in the home. That includes the hoarder who might be crushed by the mess or alienated from her family who might decide to move out if they have the financial capability.

What can be done in these severe cases is covered in other columns on Psychology Today. Please see The Basis of Hoarding, Hoarding 101, The Top 3 Hoarding Life Cycle Patterns, and What Turns Some People into Hoarders. These posts don’t paint a rosy picture of successful therapy, perhaps because pathology explains this hoarding behavior, if only we could find its underlying cause. Recent research on medication-induced hoarding goes a long way in this regard, as does the study on brain lesions associated with hoarding.

So, when push comes to shove, we can all be hoarders, but of a particular kind—when scarcity brings our natural tendencies to bear. It is only when this ingrained instinct broadens into something more pervasive, less discerning, and overall uncontrollable that we are in trouble.