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.