You've watched "Hoarders" with equal parts sympathy and fear: "Will that be me in 20 years?" Researchers are still trying to understand the disorder, but here are some clues:
By Carlin Florin
You were a teenage collector—but not in a Comic Con sort of way.
Many kids accumulate stuff, but child hoarders tend to gather unusual objects such as empty food containers and hide them under their beds. Though there are practically no studies following hoarders over time, we do know that 80 percent started by age 18 and that several of the traits associated with hoarding were present in people as adolescents, says Jordana Muroff, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Boston University School of Social Work. In fact, Muroff says, the onset of hoarding begins on average, at age 12 or 13. Herein is the good news: If you're already middle-aged and are not a hoarder, it's very unlikely you'll become one. (The bad news is that once it's established, the clutter gets worse over time.)
One of your parents was a massive waffler.
Hoarding has a genetic component, but researchers suspect that what's inherited is not a compulsion to keep stuff, per se, but rather a crippling indecisiveness, says David Tolin, Ph.D., Director of the Anxiety Disorders Center in Hartford, Connecticut. Having a parent who is an all-out hoarder is an obvious risk factor for becoming a hoarder yourself, but having one who can't make up her mind could also make you vulnerable.
Speaking of waffling, the IHOP menu paralyzes you (and exasperates your breakfast companions).
Muroff's preliminary study shows that young people who struggle to make decisions, such as what to order at a restaurant, have a higher risk of becoming hoarders than those who know what they want. Tolin has found that hoarders have an information-processing problem that leaves them unable to categorize an object as "important" or "not important," and thus renders them indecisive. That's why convincing them to throw things out can be tortuous.
A cracked plastic dust pan is your ratatouille with a madeleine on the side.
Randy Frost, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Smith College and a co-author of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, has found that hoarders use tangible objects to access memories. We all do this to an extent, but hoarders are taken back to an era when they see an object, the way most of us viscerally react to nostalgic smells, tastes or melodies. They are less confident in their ability to remember than non-hoarders (even if their ability is actually normal) and see objects as a tagging system for memories. Hoarders also have a heightened appreciation for the aesthetics of ordinary stuff, not just objets d'art.
Where others see trash, you see orphans who need proper homes and occupations.
It's great to be resourceful and pro-recycling, but hoarders have a "hyper sense of responsibility," Frost says, when it comes to making sure objects aren't wasted.
That email was halfway composed when you called your partner to tell him about, um, oh—snack time!
Focusing difficulties are correlated with hoarding, and Muroff's preliminary research results confirm that young adults who report attention problems are more.
You step on cracks and touch doorknobs without regret.
We associate hoarding with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but in fact only 18 percent of hoarders also suffer from OCD, Muroff says. Researchers have learned that treating hoarding with the same drugs and therapies used to treat OCD doesn't work that well and have developed specialized therapies, Muroff adds.
You have impossibly high housekeeping standards.
But you can't act on them. Hoarders are often perfectionists, Frost says. Except for animal hoarders, most don't live in the squalor depicted on TV. Organizing clutter, however, is difficult for people who are terrified of making mistakes. "A hoarder looks at a very messy kitchen," says Frost, "and thinks: 'There's no way I can get it where I want it, so I won't bother.'"