Hoarders lack decision-making capacity, study finds

January 8, 2013 by Narelle Towie, Science Network Wa, 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

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

December 23, 2011
It was a living room, but barely looked like one. The lecture-hall audience grew quiet seeing a photo of a room cluttered with mail, bills, and boxes projected onto the screen. The couch had only one empty spot – a butt-size ...

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 ...

New research provides insight into how obsessive-compulsive disorder develops

May 23, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- New scientific evidence challenges a popular conception that behaviours such as repetitive hand-washing, characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), are carried out in response to disturbing ...

Recommended for you

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Reducing sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy does not affect effectiveness

January 17, 2018
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients treated with as few as five sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy find it equally effective as receiving 12 sessions.

How past intentions influence generosity toward the future

January 17, 2018
Over time, it really is the thought that counts – provided we know what that thought was, suggests new research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

Tracking the impact of early abuse and neglect

January 17, 2018
Children who experience abuse and neglect early in life are more likely to have problems in social relationships and underachieve academically as adults.

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.