David Wallis writes: Animals like to hoard. Christopher E. Overtree, director of the Psychological Services Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a specialist in treating hoarding, says that “the mechanisms triggering this kind of biological reflex are present in all of us.” A friend of his in Minnesota had an eagle’s nest on his property fall from a tree. This led to a surprising discovery: 23 dog and cat collars. “The eagle ate the animals but saved the collars,” says Overtree. His own cat, Gus, wasn’t much better. Overtree recently tailed his cat sneaking off with his wife’s costume jewelry, dragging the trinkets into the attic and stashing them in a hole in the floor. “I realized he must be saving it,” says Overtree. “I think it is interesting to see a behavior that has no practical value in an animal.”

Hoarding, some scientists suggest, is a sensible action to take in an uncertain world. “We have been shaped by evolutionary pressures in the past to deal with resource scarcity, and hoarding is one of those possible strategies,” says John L. Koprowski, professor of wildlife conservation and management at the University of Arizona and an authority on squirrels. He refutes the conventional wisdom that squirrels only gather what they need to survive winters. Studies of eastern gray squirrels, for instance, suggest that up to 74 percent of buried acorns are never recovered. They could be lost — or simply stored, just in case.

While saving up in this manner seems both sensible and prevalent among animals, it is a bona fide disease among humans. This year, for the first time, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM — the bible of psychiatrists and insurers — listed it as a distinct disorder. It is also one with serious consequences, with the potential to ruin relationships, result in evictions, and fuel lethal fires. And according to the American Psychiatric Association, 2 to 5 percent of the United States population suffers from it. [Continue reading…]

Even though that’s a new diagnosis and its status as a disorder is no doubt subject to much debate, 2 to 5 percent sounds like a gross underestimate.

As for whether animals are hoarders too, I wonder whether a distinction needs to be made between hoarders and collectors?

Deprived of his collection of collars, would the eagle experience a sense of loss? “The eagle ate the animals but saved the collars.” Indeed. And better than eating the collars and saving the animals. But who’s to say what the collars thereafter represented? Fond memories? Nest decoration?

For human hoarders the accumulation of excess seems to be tied to a fear of insufficiency — that “de-acquisitioning” will cause a deficit rather than remove a surfeit.

In parallel or perhaps even driving this threat of insufficiency is the consumerist’s lack of resourcefulness and lack of self-sufficiency.

An inability to part with things can coincide with an inability to repair them.

For societies that produce mountains of waste, the things we call “waste” are the things in which we recognize no value. We fail to see how often that lack of value resides in the eye of the beholder, not the object.

In a consumer world where we have acquired the habit of replacing things that are in perfect working order simply because a better version is now available, the hoarder might feel less materialistic than his non-hoarding counterpart if not hoarding just means having little compunction about throwing things away.

In either case, each individual bears the same affliction: little sense of what it means to have enough.

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2 thoughts on “Hoarding

  1. josie milburn

    I have a shirt in good condition and I like it. But its 10 years old and out of fashion. If I refuse to throw it away am I to be accused of being a hoarder with an “affliction?” I think not and I suggest your last sentence is an error. I have other things I refuse to throw away because they are still in working condition. Age means nothing, working and usefulness, are a more sane criteria . I think this whole article is stretching the point.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    My attempt to uncover the psychology of hoarding is not meant to imply that the mere act of refusing to throw something away — such as an old shirt you like — makes you a hoarder. Age does indeed mean nothing, which is why I think there should be as much attention given to repair and reuse as there is to recycling.

    Still, I stand by my overarching point which is that we live in a culture where people are relentlessly conditioned to believe that they do not have enough — that excess is the product of a sense of insufficiency.

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