The History of Hoarding

At Hoarding Help Central, we believe that understanding the history of hoarding can be an important component in understanding why you or your loved one is a hoarder. In addition, examining the variety of treatment methods that have been studied in the past can help identify one that might be effective in your situation, provide hope that something can be done to help, or even point out the need for additional research in the area.

The Impact of the Media on Hoarding Research

Many of us are familiar with popular television programs focused around hoarding. From TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive to A&E’s Hoarders, many of us have seen television shows that depict the struggles of those living with compulsive hoarding disorder. These shows feature people that have experienced a disruption to their daily lives due to their inability to discard items that they have bought, found, or saved. It is a common occurrence on these shows for the individual in question to reach a breaking point which becomes the catalyst for a clean-up. Whether they are on the verge of losing their children because of their hoarding behavior or have received threats of legal action from the local government, there is usually some event that causes the hoarder to reach a point where they need to receive treatment of some kind.


Hoarding Defined

In 1996, psychologists Tamara Hartl and Randy O. Frost were the first to operationalize hoarding as the repeated acquisition of items of little to no perceived value, clutter of a home to the point where the space becomes virtually unusable, and the persistent difficulty discarding of items. Frost and Hartl were among the first to recognize that hoarders often experience significant distress and even the impairment of relationships and activities due to their repeated acquisition, clutter, and lack of discard behaviors.

Frost and Hartl were also among the first to recognize that, cognitively, hoarders experience problems with decision-making and it is this fact that directly results in their inability to discard items. It was Frost and Hartl’s assessment that hoarders may experience trouble estimating either the sentimental or instrumental value of an object which further contributes to their indecisiveness. It was also observed that both categorization and organization tended to be much more difficult for hoarders than for non-hoarders. This is likely due to the fact that hoarders tend to view every object that is in their possession as unique and important and this makes it difficult for them to categorize or even store like objects together. Overall, Frost and Hartl’s diagnostic criteria for compulsive hoarding disorder have been widely accepted by scholars of the disorder and have been used in numerous studies surrounding hoarding since the mid-1990s.

Overall, it should be noted that part of the definition of hoarding is subjective. After all, all people own things and all people exhibit some of the behaviors listed above on what can be considered even a regular basis. The idea of owning “too much” or “too little” is, largely, culturally defined. At the same time, so is the necessity to own certain objects as well as the length of time that someone should own them. For this reason, object ownership can be viewed as a continuum that all people occupy at one degree or another. “Normal people” can be observed engaging in the behaviors of acquiring objects and keeping them to a certain extent while those people who are considered to be “oddities” can be found at either of the far sides of the spectrum, either owning too much or too little. Hoarders, in particular, occupy one end of the spectrum, owning too much and accumulating more and more over time.


Hoarding as a Symptom of Other Mental Disorders

For a long time, hoarding was considered to be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder rather than a distinct disorder in itself. Though it is not listed in the DSM-IV-TR, there is much research to suggest that hoarding can be a symptom of a variety of different mental disorders. These include obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, dementia, and schizophrenia.

In the DSM-V, however, all of that changed. Compulsive hoarding was finally declared a distinct disorder, separate from those mentioned above although each of those disorders may still cause an individual to hoard. This means that, at this point, compulsive hoarding disorder is officially medicalized. With the medicalization of this disorder, as well as the media attention that has brought compulsive hoarding disorder to the forefront of public attention, there has never been a better time than now to examine the largely overlooked social factors that affect hoarding behavior. In the following sections, we will examine how the behaviors which drive compulsive hoarding disorder were socially constructed as well as how they have been maintained over time. In this way, we will receive a full account of the history of hoarding.

Hoarding in Material Culture

In the late 1700s, there was a rapid change in the relationship of humans to their material culture. This was, in fact, one of the driving forces of the creation of various fields of social science, including economics, political science, and sociology. The Industrial Revolution, in particular, raised many questions concerning how objects and people operated in a developing capitalist market economy. Particularly influential in this fact were the works of Karl Marx and William James.

Starting in the mid-1800s, Karl Marx began commenting on the link between people and the items that they owned in his writing. As noted by Marx, there was an observable link between human labor and the result of that human labor. Most importantly, Marx observed that the value of the commodity that human labor produced wasn’t determined by the usefulness of the object, necessarily, but rather by its relation to the mode of production. In other words, the acquisition of an object by a person is determined by various factors apart from utilitarian need for that object. In his view, objects can have value beyond their use.

William James also had much to say about how humans interact with the material culture that surrounds them. In James’s The Principles of Psychology James addressed this fact. In James’s theory, the material self is the first component of the self. It was James’s belief that objects have a direct connection to sense of self and that this connection has something to do with the body and mind of a person as well as all of the things that they call their own. According to James, people associate the objects that they own with themselves and this shapes their inner reality.

History of Hoarding as a Disorder

Many psychological theorists believe that the human capacity to acquire an enormous amount of objects can be linked to certain personality traits. Both Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm described certain characteristics of a hoarder. In each of their views, personality could be understood directly through a person’s interaction with material culture. From how one treats the objects that they own, in each of their views, we can get a greater glimpse into that individual’s inner traits. While these views offer little resemblance to the hoarder described in contemporary literature, it does help to show the importance of the human/object found in early psychological literature.

In Sigmund Freud’s work on psychosexual development, he considered hoarding to arise from the anal stage of psychosexual development. This process occurred, in Freud’s estimations, when a child reached one or two years of age. During this particular stage, Freud argued that a child could possibly become anally retentive and that this could result in obsessively controlling and withholding behavior. In Freud’s opinion, this could result in the possessiveness of objects.

In his own research, Erich Fromm built on Freud’s character types. Hoarding orientation, in Fromm’s work, is one of the non-productive types of character in addition to receptive, marketing, and exploitative character orientations. According to Fromm’s breakdown, the hoarder possesses a miserly disposition and places much importance on possessing tangible and the intangible. For the hoarding character, the acquisition and saving of objects molds a secure position who naturally perceives the outside world with fear and suspicion. Many of the hoarder characteristics posed by Fromm are similar to those found in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, namely the obsession with order, punctuality, and compulsive cleaning of both the body and surroundings.

Until the 1990s, hoarding was mentioned very rarely in psychological literature. The first time that “hoarding” was applied to “describe a psychopathological phenomenon in an anecdotic case report” is cited as The 1966 article Hamburger Hoarding: A Case of Symbolic Cannibalism Resembling Whitico Psychosis by Bolman and Katz. In this particular report, a schizophrenic woman hoarded meat and the authors referred to her behavior as displaying “unusual and bizarre symptoms and behaviors” associated with schizophrenia.  The explanation for hoarding behavior in this particular article is the first departure from the character depictions asserted by both Freud and Fromm. Here, hoarding is viewed as a symptom of an underlying psychological disorder rather than as a personality flaw. This would prove impactful in the assertion of compulsive hoarding disorder as its own distinct disorder rather than just a symptom of an underlying mental disorder.

The History of Hoarding Shows a Need for Further Research

We here at Hoarding Help Central hope that this summary of the history of hoarding was informational for you. Although we have made strides in understanding this complex disorder, there is still much work to be done. In order to develop effective treatment strategies for those with compulsive hoarding disorder, we must take hoarding’s history into account and research the disorder more closely. In doing so, we can effectively take the steps needed to develop better treatment and intervention strategies.