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Hoarding: When Too Much 'Stuff' Causes Grief

For the past decade, psychologists Randy Frost and Gail Steketee have studied hoarders: people who compulsively acquire a lot of stuff, and then have difficulty discarding the objects they obtain.

In their book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, the two researchers detail how compulsive behaviors drive sufferers to pile objects throughout their homes. Illustrating the phenomenon through several case studies, Frost and Steketee identify the key traits that identify a hoarder, detailing the underlying causes and explaining how to minimize the effects of the emotionally exhausting disorder.

In an interview on Fresh Air, the researchers tell contributor Dave Davies that hoarders often don't realize the extent of their problems -- even when confronted with photographs of the chaos in their cluttered houses.

"There's a phenomenon we refer to as 'clutter blindness,' " Steketee explains. "And when we take pictures and show [hoarders] the pictures later, they often have the impression of shock. It's like somebody else's home that they're looking at in the photograph, because to them that's not what it looks like when they walk in the house."

Frost and Steketee are also the co-authors of Buried in Treasure: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding and the workbook Compulsive Hoarding and Acquiring: Treatments That Work.

Interview Highlights

On whether hoarders consciously notice their circumstances

Randy Frost: "Interestingly, when I showed up at [one particular client's] house, what she said to me was, 'When you're here, I'm aware of clutter, and it makes me feel awful. I get depressed; I look at myself as a horrible person. When you leave, I don't notice it anymore.' That is what a number of people have told us."

Gail Steketee: "And as you can imagine, they rarely invite anyone there. They're very ashamed."

On when collecting becomes pathology

Steketee: "[It's] when it crosses the line from ... collecting things to the point where there's distress -- either to the person who has the problem or [for] those around them. And [when there is an] impairment -- when they can't do the things that they [would otherwise] do in their ordinary lives, when they can't socialize or have people into the house or work effectively, when they can't spend time with their children and on and on."

Frost: "One of the questions we get all the time from people is, 'What's the difference between someone who has a hoarding problem and someone who is a collector?' What we've noticed is a couple of major differences between the two. First of all, when people collect things, they typically organize them in a pretty systematic fashion -- and that doesn't happen in hoarding. The other thing is, when people collect things, they typically want to display them to other people. ... Hoarders want to keep things hidden because of the shame they have."

On traits common among hoarders

Frost: "These beliefs seem to be associated with some peculiar information-processing problems. That is, there are some problems with attention and sometimes a hyperfocus, problems with categorization -- the ability to organize things. People who hoard tend to live their lives visually and spatially instead of categorically like the rest of us do."

On treatment options

Steketee: "One of the first things we start off with doing is trying to figure out how motivated they are to get over the problem. Because when they're with us, they feel embarrassed -- but in their own home, they're not at all sure they want to get rid of anything. Part of that is trying to figure out [what] values they have for the future and what goals they have based on those values, and that can help us sort of set the stage -- when they want to back out or they're afraid to get rid of something, we can double back to those goals."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.