Why Hoarders Hoard

Most people with hoarding issues are not living in mile-high piles of junk, like you see on the television shows about hoarding. Nevertheless, hoarding tendencies are somewhat prevalent.

The psychology behind hoarding is one of ‘holding on.’ People hold on to things longer than they know they should because of false beliefs.

The most common of these beliefs is the idea or feeling that, ‘It’s still perfectly good. Why throw out something that’s good?’

Some people are perfectly happy to give things away that they no longer need. But they cannot stand the idea of disposing of them. Turning once prized items into trash? Never.

Recently, I talked to someone whose parents kept bringing things to her and her husband’s new house. The parents were moving away, and without asking just assumed that the young couple would want all the things brought to them as ‘gifts.’

‘Remember this from your childhood? I’m sure you wanted it. Wouldn’t that be nice for the kitchen? And that for the dining room? Here, keep them.’

The mother in this situation reportedly had issues with hoarding. While she was more than willing to part with some of her things in order to make the desired move to Florida from up north, she couldn’t stand the idea of having the junk man haul them to the dump.

Her false belief was, ‘It’s perfectly good stuff. Why throw it out?’ Yes, it made her feel good to think of her daughter and son-in-law enjoying them in their new house. But they didn’t want this stuff, and to them it was merely superfluous junk.

Hoarders don’t just get on family members’ nerves. They also get on their own nerves, in some cases. They know, rationally, that they should be able to throw things out. But emotionally they feel compelled to keep them.

The deeper issue here is one of context-dropping. Context-dropping refers to a failure to see or acknowledge all the relevant facts of a given situation. ‘Yes, this is still a perfectly good television or computer. It’s no longer of value to me, because I have a newer and better one that serves all my needs. There’s no possibility of it serving my needs again. Nobody I know wants it either, not even for free-of-charge.’

Considering and absorbing the full context means thinking, ‘If it’s not worthwhile to me, or to anybody else, then it’s frankly trash.’ This rational conclusion clashes in the hoarder’s mind with the idea that, ‘But if it’s still potentially of use to someone, it’s not trash.’

Consider the man I know who kept all the complimentary soap and shampoos from every hotel or cruise ship he ever encountered. ‘I paid for them,’ he insisted. ‘And they’re perfectly good.’ The problem is: Nobody wanted them. Not himself, not his wife nor anyone they knew. But he kept them anyway because they were intrinsically valuable items, even if they were of no practical or even sentimental use to himself or his family.

There’s an idea known as intrinsic value. It may sound like a heavy term, but all it means is that something is valuable apart from its value to anybody else. But in fact—it isn’t. The man with the shampoo fixation, like most with hoarding tendencies, represents the ideology of intrinsic value in action, in everyday life.

You see this illustrated all the time on the History Channel’s show called ‘Pawn Stars.’ People bring in all kinds of relics to a pawn shop (where they actually try to sell the items, in most cases). The pawn shop owners’ job is to assess their actual market value. In some cases, things which you would expect to be highly valuable are actually worth little or nothing on the collectors’ market. Buyers sometimes end up disappointed. ‘I thought this would be worth $10,000 or more. It was once owned by a celebrity, after all. But you’re saying it’s only worth $100 at most.’

The doctrine of intrinsic value would suggest that the item should rise in cost even if there’s little or no demand for the item. But it’s impossible, in economics as well as all of life, to completely divorce an object’s worth from its relevance to the people who will be valuing it.

It’s important to understand that hoarding is neither a medical disease, nor something the individual can easily control. The hoarding individual is free to make different choices, but will feel unable to do so until he challenges—and changes—some of his underlying, erroneous ideas.


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