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Hoarding: A Look at the Motivations to Save Things

  • September 29, 2022

People who have hoarding disorder are attached to most of the same things as other people—the difference is in the amount.

Possessions have a magical quality for all of us. Our most cherished ones contain an essence that goes beyond their physical qualities, like a ticket stub from a favorite concert, a gift from a dear friend or a piece of clothing belonging to a lost loved one. Most of us own many things of this sort, but our ownership does not interfere with our ability to live. For some people, however, ownership goes awry, and possessions accumulate and clutter living spaces, making them unusable.

The severity of hoarding ranges from mild to life-threatening. Some research has indicated that hoarding is associated with more work interruption than most other psychiatric disorders. In some instances, hoarding has been associated with fire-related deaths, and people have lost custody of children because of the condition of the home.

Hoarding is more common than any of the other obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. There is evidence that the behavior is partly genetic. There are significant differences in the way the brain functions and information is processed in individuals with hoarding disorder as compared with healthy individuals. People with hoarding disorder are often anxious and have difficulty coping with distress. Hoarding often occurs along with depression and problems with attention.

The living space in the home of someone with a severe hoarding problem is packed with a wide-ranging assortment of things that soar to the ceiling, with only narrow pathways for navigation. Some rooms can be navigated only by “swimming” through the clutter. In contrast to one common myth about hoarding—that saved objects are “worthless or worn out”—the vast majority of these things are potentially useful or emotionally meaningful to the person retaining them. In fact, our research has indicated that the types of things found in the homes of people with hoarding disorder are largely the same as things everyone saves—just more of them.

The motivations for saving things

Among people with hoarding disorder, their motivations for saving things are not all that different from the attachments all of us form to the things we own. They relate to our sense of identity, safety, and comfort; a sense of responsibility; and an appreciation for the aesthetic qualities of physical objects. These attachments are normative, but in people with hoarding disorder, they are experienced more intensely and seem to apply to a larger number and wider variety of objects.

When one of our research participants was asked to consider letting go of one of her 30-year-old college textbooks that she hadn’t looked at since graduating, she put it into a box to go to the local library and started to cry. She said, “I just feel like I want to die!” She couldn’t explain why. A short while later, she put a five-year-old receipt into a recycle box—more tears. “It feels like I’m losing that day in my life. And if I lose too much, there will be nothing left of me.” But it wasn’t just the distress of that fear that motivated her saving. She saved hundreds of cardboard tubes from the inside of toilet paper rolls. Discarding them seemed wasteful, and she was sure she could find someone who could use them, perhaps an art teacher. She would feel guilty and wasteful if she got rid of them. She also saved bottle caps, not because she wanted or needed them, but because she appreciated the shapes, colors, and textures. The motives for saving she displayed were not unusual, but the extent to which they applied to virtually anything that entered her home made them dysfunctional. These objects helped to define her life. Letting go of them raised a host of questions about who she was.

Getting help

Treatment of hoarding disorder requires attention to three interrelated problems: 

  • Excessive acquisition of possessions.
  • Absence of discarding or letting go of possessions.
  • Disorganized behavior that impairs the management of daily tasks. 

Exposure-based strategies can help patients learn to tolerate the intense urges to acquire. Getting individuals to discard possessions means having them challenge their motivations for saving. Some research has shown that establishing a process by which patients must focus on an object and consider its importance in their lives can help them develop discarding skills. Research with elderly hoarding patients has indicated that cognitive rehabilitation strategies can provide significant benefits, especially with respect to managing time and important daily activities.

Hoarding disorder can be especially difficult to treat. Therapists’ motivational interviewing skill makes a big difference in fostering good outcomes. Additional resources are available in many communities that involve highly structured, peer-led workshops such as the Buried in Treasures (BIT) Workshop.

More information

Adapted from Psychiatric News article, "Hoarding: Ownership Gone Awry," published Aug. 22, 2022. 
Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Frost are the authors of “Hoarding Disorder: A Comprehensive Clinical Guide” from APA Publishing.

Content Author

Carolyn I. Rodriguez, M.D., Ph.D.

Associate Dean and Professor
Director of the Translational Therapeutics Lab
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Stanford University School of Medicine

Content Author

Randy O. Frost, Ph.D.

Harold Edward and Elsa Siipola Israel Professor Emeritus of Psychology
Smith College

Medical leadership for mind, brain and body.

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