- Hoarding is now officially recognized as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
- Researchers sought to differentiate healthy collecting behavior and hoarding through interviews and surveys.
- 12 main differences were identified, indicating that hoarding and collecting are distinct.
In the United States, homes have become much bigger despite the drop in birthrate and household size. The median single family home built is now 2,273 square feet compared to 1,525 square feet in 1973. People now need a lot more space to hold all their possessions. Walk-in closets are highly sought-after, and some people even turn spare rooms into extremely spacious closets. Others (10% of Americans according to one source) rent storage units as a solution.
Given that consumerism is now the norm, the line between healthy versus pathological purchasing behavior has become blurry. In 2013, Hoarding Disorder was finally added to the DSM-5 to describe people who struggle severely with discarding objects of little value, resulting in clutter and impairment. Psychologists now deal with the challenge of differentiating between collecting, which applies to 30% of adults, and hoarding. To identify possible differences, Nordsletten et al. (2013) conducted a mixed-methods study in London, interviewing and surveying 29 participants who were diagnosed with Hoarding Disorder, and 20 participants who identified as collectors.
Through the study, the researchers identified 12 key differences between self-identified collectors versus hoarders:
1. Selectivity: Collectors were focused on particular types of objects, whereas hoarders indiscriminately collected things. On average, the collectors named six types of collections, whereas hoarders named an average of 15.
2. Planning: Collectors carefully planned out their acquisitions, whereas hoarders did little planning and organization.
3. Excessive Acquisition: While both groups struggled with excessive acquisition, or acquiring too many objects, twice as many hoarders (80% vs. 40%) reported this issue. Excessive acquisition was also more severe for hoarders, who typically used up all their living space. Meanwhile, collectors often limited their collections to one room.
4. Clutter: Collectors carefully organized their collections whereas hoarders did not, resulting in clutter and impairment.
5. Distress: Collectors reported enjoying the process of collecting objects, whereas hoarders reported distress due to clutter. However, a few collectors reported distress from other sources, such as financial concerns or their partner’s unhappiness.
6. Social Impairment: Collectors showed little social impairment, whereas hoarders showed high social impairment. For example, collectors were often married while hoarders were typically unmarried. In addition, collectors would form friendships due to their activities, whereas hoarders withdrew socially.
7. Occupational Impairment: Hoarders reported a high level of impairment at work, whereas collectors did not.
8. Motivations for Collecting: Hoarders were more likely than collectors to acquire things because they thought they would be “useful in the future” (93% vs. 30%) and because of “compulsive shopping” (35% vs. 10%).
9. Motivations for Holding Onto Objects: Both groups had trouble discarding objects, however, hoarders were more likely than collectors to say that they did not want to create waste (55% vs. 10%). Yet, there were some similarities in motivations. Both groups felt that the item might be useful in the future, that they were emotionally attached to the object, and that the object was part of their identity.
10. Identification as a Collector: While all collectors self-identified as such (a requirement of the study), only about half of hoarders identified as collectors.
11. Other Psychiatric Conditions: While psychiatric conditions were fairly common in both groups, more hoarders than collectors had another Axis 1 Disorder (Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders) (69% vs. 40%) based on a clinical interview conducted in the study.
12. Demographics: Compared to hoarders, collectors were more educated and had larger homes. This converges with past research finding that hoarders tend to have lower incomes.
The researchers concluded that there are clear differences between the two groups which should aid in accurate diagnoses. However, they noted a few major limitations, including the small sample size and self-selection into the study. For instance, the hoarders included in the study may have more self-awareness given their desire to participate in the research. The researchers also mentioned that some of the collectors expressed concerns about their collecting behavior. Notably, 40% of the collectors had a mental health or substance abuse disorder based on the clinical interview, which is a much higher rate than found in the general population (according to rough estimates, 11% of people in the world currently have a mental disorder).
Thus, many questions remain. Can collecting evolve into hoarding, or vice versa? If so, how does this happen? What is at the root of the desire to collect versus hoard beyond self-reported reasons? Can collecting in itself be pathological, even when it does not result in clutter and social impairment? If so, how do we differentiate between healthy and unhealthy collections?
Nordsletten, A. E., de la Cruz, L. F., Billotti, D., & Mataix-Cols, D. (2013). Finders keepers: The features differentiating hoarding disorder from normative collecting. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 54(3), 229-237. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comppsych.2012.07.063