July 19, 2013

"Organizing" as crypto-hoarding, and emotional dysfunction

Hoarding is an extreme behavior, representing the far tail of a distribution. It's like being on death row. Violence is not a black-and-white thing, nor is accumulating stuff. Just because you're not on death row doesn't mean you aren't in prison for violent crime, and even if you're not in prison, you may be more violent than other free men.

The same with accumulation -- just because you don't have heaping piles of junk preventing easy passage from one area of your house to the next, doesn't mean you don't show the same type of behavior as a hoarder, only at a lower intensity.

The next step down from a hoarder is the organizer, the type of person who has made more than one trip to the Container Store during their lifetime. (Get out of jail free if it was just before you left for college and your parents dragged you along.) You might think that the organizer is the foil to the hoarder -- sweeping the entire house clear of clutter, sealing it in containers, and rationally organizing the containers into a nested system of categories. What could be further from the slob who lets the piles of junk spill all over the place, with no containment or organization at all?

In fact, the organizer is merely a hoarder who is socially aware enough to put a tidy, acceptable facade onto their dysfunctional accumulation of stuff. Other than being more considerate toward others, the organizer and the hoarder are nearly identical.

Both are crippled by OCD, to name the most obvious similarity. It's useful to think of OCD as reason run riot -- rather than make decisions and act based on intuition, they must draw up an explicitly articulated list of rules and regulations to follow, no if's and's or but's about it. Emotion is what motivates, drives, and directs us on an unconscious or intuitive level, so OCD is characterized by a profound emotional dysfunction.

The importance of emotion in decision-making was brought to popular audiences' attention in Antonio Damasio's 1994 book Descartes' Error, which drew on case studies of neurological patients who'd suffered damage to their emotional centers. They could reason perfectly fine, generating an infinite list of possible courses of action to take, and even projecting what the likely consequences of each course would be.

The only problem? Without emotion to drive them, they were incapable of attaching weights to any of the choices in their endless list of possibilities, and failed to ever pick one and junk the others. Or throw their hands up and pick at random. Indecisiveness became their defining abnormality. They lived aimless lives because with no emotional impulse toward A and away from B, C, and D, they could set no real goals for themselves.

Absence of emotion, paralyzing indecisiveness, and forever entertaining all possibilities rather than whittling them down to the ones that you value the most -- those cases sound so close to the OCD organizers and hoarders. They don't actually like the stuff they're keeping, but they don't dislike it either. They're emotionally disconnected from most of their items, and hence cannot attach weights to them in order to tell us whether they like something or not.

Maybe a contrasting third group will help. Hoarders are embarrassed by their piles of junk, while people with collections proudly display them and derive some joy and pleasure from adding to and subtracting from them.

Organizers are much closer to hoarders: they want to keep all of their containers and neatly arranged items out of plain sight, and feel anxiety about being judged if someone from outside were to open their cupboard -- "Oh crap, they're going to see how extreme my organizing tendencies are, and I just know they're going to think I'm some kind of weirdo now..." Also like hoarders, and unlike collectors, the organizers don't enjoy adding items to their existing store of stuff, and it's like pulling teeth to get them to get rid of large amounts of stuff that serves no utilitarian purpose in their lives, and from which they derive no real joy or pleasure.

In the organizer's mind, you never know if some of this stuff will come in handy some day (utilitarian value), or if I'll grow to like it later on, or perhaps somebody else will find it valuable (subjective value). You hear the exact same stalling tactics from hoarders. But with organizers, they take an extra step in stalling and refusing to make a decision about the item's worth to them, and whether they should keep it or not -- just box it up in a container, and hide the containers behind closed doors ("in a storage space").

This layer upon layer of quarantining alleviates their anxiety for a little while, but eventually they'll run into the container again and it'll flash across their brain -- do I want to keep this stuff or not? As they continue this stalling tactic, while still accumulating more and more stuff, the containers appear to be breeding, multiplying far beyond the original storage area.

Ultimately they must face the same decisions as the hoarders about what to keep and what to get rid of. And that makes them just as anxious and panicky as the hoarders, because they too are incapable of feeling anything good or bad toward their things, hence incapable of discarding anything.

Their characteristic response of anxiety, panic, irritation, and so on, prove that they have no sentimental attachments to their things -- if someone asked you to get rid of something truly valuable to you, you'd respond more with disgust, and anger but more of a righteous anger type. How dare they suggest that I throw away my parents' wedding pictures? Tossing them in the trash can would be desecration. "You don't really need to keep your grandmother's ashes and the urn they're in, do you? Let me just help you dump them out in the yard and donate the urn to the local goodwill store." You couldn't help but make a disgusted face, flaring your nostrils, lifting your upper lip, and narrowing your eyes.

Similar interventions to clear up the stuff of an organizer or hoarder do not elicit disgust, but fear (panic, anxiety), perhaps mixed with some anger, though of an irritated rather than righteous type. They're just getting ticked off that you're forcing them to confront these decisions earlier than they'd planned -- why can't they just wait a little longer, and decide later? Your offense is not tempting them to commit sacrilege, but putting them on the spot when they just want to hide from their decisions-to-be-made.

This focus on a functioning emotional/intuitive system vs. a broken system is important, lest we mislead ourselves into condemning the accumulation of stuff per se. I'm all for having stuff, as long as you're going to be using it for some mundane utilitarian purpose, or you really like it -- in a way that shows on your face when you interact with it. As you no longer have use for the thing, or no longer really like it, get rid of it, maybe reacquiring it when and if you find the need for it again. (Assuming of course that the ridding and acquiring costs are low.)

That's the most striking thing about these organizers and hoarders -- they don't actually like any of this stuff that threatens to, or actually does spill out of overpowered storage spaces. And they don't hate it either -- no feelings toward it one way or another. Bizarre!

I also think that focusing on their dysfunctional emotional system tells us what kind of interventions won't work. Like, say, asking them to think of it from an outsider's point of view -- would they really value this stuff enough to keep holding on to it all? The organizer / hoarder cannot attach value to anything themselves, so how could they possibly imagine others doing so? It's like asking a color-blind person to imagine what colors a person with normal sight would see.

They would need to hear it from representative and unbiased others in order to get it. If everybody else swears there are two different colors in the picture, and you insist there's just one, well, OK, maybe you guys are right, even if I can't understand it at all. The trick for helping organizers to recover is that they probably won't hear this message from unbiased others, but those who seem to have a strong desire to get them to stop accumulating so much junk, stop pretending that organizing it makes it better, and stop delaying the inevitable. That sounds too hostile for them to accept.

Maybe the intervener could take a random poll of neighbors or passersby? I don't know, but these things have to be kept in mind.

Ultimately these far more pervasive problems of organizing (less intense hoarding) will clear themselves up when people's emotional/intuitive systems start working again, as a result of becoming more experienced. Everyone's so sheltered in their domestic sphere, interacting at most with the nuclear family, that they have almost no experiences to serve as the foundation for intuition. You only develop intuition from experiences -- you get a feel for what is likely, what the pattern will look like.

Once people's emotional/intuitive systems come back online, they'll find it trivial to give a positive score to this thing and a negative to that thing, a high positive to this and a low positive to that, and so on, making it almost effortless to only keep holding onto the stuff that you find useful or enjoyable.

In an earlier post I explored the web of dysfunction related to cocooning behavior, and OCD, anxiety, self-doubt, and indecisiveness were central. I didn't notice at the time that OCD and its reliance on explicit rules rather than intuition reflected a broken emotional motivation system, and a broken decision-making system for everyday life, where intuition should be the guide.

Still, at least once before, our culture has rid itself of entrenched OCD. It last became deeply rooted during the mid-century, but began to evaporate once the outgoing and intuitive era of the 1960s took off, with the problem more or less licked by the mid-'70s, and seeming more like the stuff of tall tales by the '80s. And if we've done it once, we can do it again.


  1. " rather than make decisions and act based on intuition"

    yeah, but how do you do that all the time? emotions can be hard to feel.


  2. It's not so much about a conscious awareness of your emotional response... just the intuitive impulse itself.

    Like how lots of these organizers set rules for how many showers to take, set a schedule for how often to organize their clutter, etc.

    You don't need to do that if you can intuitively tell whether or not the space is messy enough that you need to do something about it. Or if you've done something that requires you to wash your hands or take a shower.

    Animals get by just fine on intuition alone. Human reason allows us to do fancier stuff, but we don't need it just to take care of basic everyday things that animals can manage intuitively.

  3. I didn't know that people with OCD or hoarders are described as unemotional per se. Is that a common part of their diagnoses? Their negative emotionality (like sadness, anger, fear) particularly seems really high.

    The brain is also integrated, so skeptical about isolating emotional centres as a cause of decision dysfunction. And I think brain damage purely to the limbic system, deep within the brain is rare.

    I agree and disagree about the role of emotions in decision making. Personally I do think emotions are not necessarily useful in decision making, per se, once the brain has evolved reason and experience, but that emotions more both serve the function of helping affiliation through empathy (if no one had any feelings, then they could never have "in feeling" with one another) and (particularly in the case of positive emotions, but also the sublime and tragic, really any kind of balanced emotionality) are also the sweetness in the "cognitive cheesecake" (to use a Pinkerism) that we firstly have the right to enjoy even if there isn't actually any functionally useful role, but which also incentivizes us to action.

    I see being emotional as like being drunk with friends. It generally doesn't help you make better decisions, but it strengths your social bonds and often gives you energy for your life. It doesn't help you make a better choice between the A, B, C and D, but it strengthens the bonds with your community and allies and forces a person to be achievement and motivates reasoning and action in a generalised kind of sense.

    I'm not sure if this is the same as what you are saying or quite different.

  4. What about kids coming out of an overcontrolled situation? You're always being told what to do, what to think, what to wear- finally you are out on your own at what, 25 (real job after four years college), 30 (grad school), whiskey tango foxtrot? You pile stuff up, and ten years go by, and you're fifty and you're that guy with all the stuff in his house, organized or not...

  5. Does organizing cause any problems? I haven't seen any shows about it. I also would have assumed organizers were proud of their organization.

    If they had no emotional response, I'd think others could just throw stuff away and the hoarder wouldn't care. But my impression is that hoarders are upset if that happens.

  6. I know an extreme hoarder, the brother of my best friend. Their mother was a hoarder too although she was somewhat kept in check by her husband. After he died, however, she grew worse. She started buying single wide mobile homes at auction in which she stored the junk of her son.

    The brother has suffered from extreme rages since he was a child and does so to this day at the age of 55 so to say he is w/out emotion is not at all correct.

    My best friend, his older sister, admitted to me long ago that she has had to fight the tendency most of her life. She loves to buy things on sale, then store them. As you describe, she is the person who has tried to organize her possessions to an excessive degree: compartments/drawers/bins/added cabinets/compartmentalized attic with nice step-down ladders, etc.

    She especially liked labeling things with her label maker....took an excessive delight in so doing which I noticed long before I found out about the hoarding in her family.

    When she lost her other brother to drugs it seems her proclivity was curbed. She was very close to this youngest brother, helped raise him, and from what I have observed, I'd say the emotional devastation of his death actually changed the course of her hoarding tendencies. She still buys more than other people, but she also throws things away. She has explained to me that she does this consciously because she knows she "has the tendency" and has seen what it has done to her brother and to a lesser extent, her mother. She no longer seems bent on organization either. I figure age has something to do with it. It takes energy to organize.

  7. I guess I mean more how do you sharpen your emotions so that you know the right decision to make.


  8. "I guess I mean more how do you sharpen your emotions so that you know the right decision to make."

    It's a matter of getting more experience, not really sharpening your emotions. Intuition guides you after you've had lots of experience, and you've developed an unconscious feel for the situation.

    If you get into similar situations, it'll come more as a hunch.

  9. "Does organizing cause any problems?"

    Sure, those containers keep multiplying themselves.

    And it's not so much about what it leads to, but what it's a symptom of -- the broken emotional system that assigns weights to each item, and comes up with an algorithm for keeping or getting rid of each item based on its weighting.

    "If they had no emotional response, I'd think others could just throw stuff away and the hoarder wouldn't care. But my impression is that hoarders are upset if that happens."

    I didn't say they had no emotional response, but that they don't have any special attachment to their things -- no utilitarian value, and no sentimental value.

    When you try to take truly valued things away, the normal response is disgust (desecrating something sacred by tossing it out) or sadness (something cherished slipping out of your hands).

    The anger of the organizer / hoarder is more like irritation, feeling violated, their privacy invaded, their character attacked, being put on the spot and embarrassed, etc.

    They're not angry because they derive any value from their things, but because your actions to help them out feel like a disrespectful and paternalistic slap in their face.

  10. "I'd say the emotional devastation of his death actually changed the course of her hoarding tendencies."

    The big problems in life -- death, sex, crime -- have a way of focusing your mind on what's really important. A death in the family can be like a shot in the arm of something that truly matters, so your mind has a point of reference.

    Compared to such a major event, acquiring more things that you derive no usefulness or enjoyment from -- well, that's a pretty easy question to answer with your new perspective.

    Widespread OCD and related behaviors are a sign of how insulated we've become from the major issues in life. It's like an auto-immune disease -- we have this system set up for coping with problems, but it gets less and less frequent use for the Real Problems. So it turns on something trivial and pointless like acquiring and organizing crud (ahem, crud that was 80% off!).

  11. So, I usually enjoy the high level speculation on this blog and connecting of cultural dots, but this time you're getting off track. I legitimately have OCD with therapy and SSRIs to boot, and lemme tell you, it sucks. I'm not playing the victim card, I just want to point out a few things if you must insist on pursuing this topic further

    Say what you will about psychology as a field, but there is a specific set of criteria that define OCD, and you're using the term as a loose adjective to describe behavior that superficially fits the bill. of course cultural changes can affect individual behavior and brain chemistry, but there is a big difference between the OCD trap -- something's feels not quite right...sort of involuntarily attributing it to something in the environment...and then compulsively trying to change the environment for random reinforcement-- and what seems to be just symptoms of increasing boredom, increasing standards of living, diversity without commaraderie, self awareness, social media, and probably some selection and confirmation bias. the detailed rules of beer pong, helicopter parenting, food instagrams, and sarcastic status updates on Facebook are not the same as hours of checking routines (physical or mental) that interfere with work, happiness, sleep, and more, for example. This is not to say a continuum does not exist, but that OCD refers to something on the extreme end.

    Anyway I know OCD can be a cute adjective and people know what you mean, but I think you're logically minded enough and you've discussed it enough that you might respect the differences between the true disorder and just annoying social trends.

  12. "the detailed rules of beer pong, helicopter parenting, food instagrams, and sarcastic status updates on Facebook are not the same as hours of checking routines (physical or mental) that interfere with work, happiness, sleep, and more, for example."

    I disagree. Those examples are part of a larger and broader pattern of OCD behavior in those people's lives. I've written elsewhere about what college kids are like in their "leisure" time these days --

    Constantly checking Facebook to see if there are any new status updates since 5 minutes ago, if anyone has liked or commented on one of their own updates within the past 5 minutes, or if there are any new pictures to look at / like / comment on, or any comments / likes on their own pictures, etc.

    Doing the same constant checking behaviors with texting.

    Video games that are mostly "grinding" of one sort or another.

    Always getting up to parade around the computer lab or study area in order to get a few quick hits of ego inflation from anybody who looks at you.

    "Anyway I know OCD can be a cute adjective and people know what you mean, but I think you're logically minded enough and you've discussed it enough that you might respect the differences between the true disorder and just annoying social trends."

    Well, we say autistic, sperg, retarded, ADD, psycho, schizo, spastic, gay, and so on. Psychiatrists may have their own definition of what those things are, but we all know what they mean in common usage, and that our definition and the shrinks' definition are in the same semantic cluster... so why split hairs?

  13. "Well, we say autistic, sperg, retarded, ADD, psycho, schizo, spastic, gay, and so on. Psychiatrists may have their own definition of what those things are, but we all know what they mean in common usage, and that our definition and the shrinks' definition are in the same semantic cluster..."

    I think that there is an exception to the "same semantic cluster" rule - "schizo"; most people use words like "schizo", "schizophrenic", "schizoid", etc, with the meaning of dual personality, having contradictory opinions, etc, when the psychiatric definitions have to do with a mix of social isolation and loss of contact with reality.

    About the "OCD" thing, I suspect that the common meaning of the expression has more to do with OCPD ("Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder", characterized by an obsession with rules, regulations, systems, order, etc) than with OCD ("Obsessive Compulsive Disorder", characterized by obsessive thoughts and anxiety and the need to perform rituals to get free from the anxiety). But if there is some confusion between the two, the guilt is in the psychiatrists, who labeled two distinct diseases with almost identical names (and they should know that the "personality" in "obsessive compulsive personality disorder" will be likely to "fall" in colloquial use)


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