Hoarders lack decision-making capacity, study finds

January 8, 2013 by Narelle Towie, Science Network Wa
The researchers probed the decision-making capabilities of 24 compulsive hoarders, and discovered that they score significantly lower on mental flexibility than non-hoarders. Credit: Earthworm

Compulsive hoarders struggle to throw out their many possessions because their brains lack flexibility, new research suggests.

To most people, the idea of clogging your home with myriad useless items is baffling.

Some compulsive hoarders have bankrupted themselves with self-storage bills, and many sufferers have driven their exasperated spouses to divorce.

But at Curtin University now think the problem may be down to a chronic case of putting things in the 'too-hard' basket.

The researchers probed the decision-making capabilities of 24 compulsive hoarders, and discovered that they score significantly lower on mental flexibility than non-hoarders.

"People who hoard appear to have some difficulties with sustaining attention and in certain aspects of decision-making," says A/Prof Clare Rees, a member of the research team.

In practice, this means hoarders tend to generate too many possible categories for their possessions, she says.

For instance, faced with an old jacket that no longer fits, a compulsive hoarder might struggle to decide whether to take it to the op shop, get it tailored, give it to a friend, sell it online, keep it until they lose weight, or just chuck it away.

"What tends to happen is that they then feel overwhelmed and it simply gets thrown back into a box in the corner for another five years," A/Prof Rees says.

She says she and her colleagues had no trouble finding their 24 subjects for the study – they simply put out an advert on local radio and came forward.

They gave them a task called the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, which tests subjects' organisational skills by requiring them to arrange differently patterned cards into categories.

Compulsive hoarders had trouble adapting their scheme as things got more complex, and also struggled to maintain their focus on the task, the researchers report in the journal Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy.

The results suggest that curing compulsive hoarders of their tendencies is more complex than just teaching them to throw stuff away.

The most common treatment involves encouraging hoarders to sort through their possessions, making a quick decision over the fate of each one. In theory, they eventually learn that the pain of dispensing with an item is only fleeting.

But the problem may be more deep-seated than that, says A/Prof Rees.

"Rather than simply focusing treatment on reducing the number of in their home, we should be thinking about helping them modify or train certain aspects of their cognitive abilities. Perhaps the most important aspect of this would be to train them in developing mental flexibility and attention."

But there's another hurdle – before they can be treated, many compulsive hoarders first have to admit there's something wrong.

"Many people with this problem are not highly motivated to change because some of them don't see a problem with their behaviour," A/Prof Rees says.

"It's usually others that get upset, such as family or the local council because of the mess it creates."

Explore further: Just messy or is it hoarding? Sorting out darker reality hidden inside clutter

Related Stories

Autistic tendencies linked to compulsive Internet use

September 26, 2012

The more autistic tendencies a person exhibits the greater the chance that he or she uses the Internet in a compulsive manner. NWO researcher Catrin Finkenauer from VU University Amsterdam has demonstrated this relationship ...

Recommended for you

Half of people believe fake facts

December 7, 2016

Many people are prone to 'remembering' events that never happened, according to new research by the University of Warwick.

MRI scans detect 'brain rust' in schizophrenia

December 7, 2016

A damaging chemical imbalance in the brain may contribute to schizophrenia, according to research presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology Annual Meeting in Hollywood, Florida.

Helping children achieve more in school

December 7, 2016

Not all children do well in school, despite being intellectually capable. Whilst parental relationships, motivation and self-concept all have a role to play, a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology ...

Want to give a good gift? Think past the 'big reveal'

December 6, 2016

Gift givers often make critical errors in gift selection during the holiday season, according to a new research article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 08, 2013

I think this is very important research. However it seems to ignore the emotional aspect of making decisions.

Somewhat similar to "choking" when taking a test. I find my mind racing when in the heat of making a decision, momentarily becoming anxious and trying to predict or prevent future bad feelings or avoid revisiting the decision in the future. As if to scold myself for a missed opportunity. "If only I had held onto that one thing.. my life would be easier now."

In truth I think when that does happen, sometimes its self deception and poor memory or revisionist thinking to suit the situation. I literally conspire against myself to punish and prevent future "purging" or "forced/planned" decisions to clear out items. I become my own worst enemy and sabotage future decision making.

"Choking" has been connected with an over active frontal lobe of the brain reponsible for emotions. Perhaps going hyperactive in fMRI when problem solving. On therapy is writing about about before doing.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.