Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hoarding, Willpower, and Decision Fatigue Part 1

Several of the hoarders profiled in Stuff display what is described by the authors as "complex thinking". One hoarder, Alvin, complained:

"that his mind was "too difficult to navigate." He went on, "I'ts like a tree with too many branches.Everything is connected. Every branch leads somewhere, and there are so many branches that I get lost. They are too thick to see through." He said that his thoughts came so rapidly and spun from topic to topic so fast that he couldn't keep things straight." (Stuff, p.201)

Frost and Steketee observe that this "getting lost in the complexity of his thoughts is common among hoarders" (p. 202). They seem to more attentive to details, and to retain the details longer than non-hoarders. Irene commented "I'm a detail person, not a big-picture person, but I've been saving the details for so long. I need to put them together" (p. 202). This complexity of thinking also manifested itself in long, rambling speeches, not just in hoarding.

In Willpower, Baumeister and Tierney discuss something called "The Zeigarnick Effect" (p. 80-84). According to a possibly mythical story, a group of researchers went to a restaurant and placed an order with a waiter who remembered their large amount of complex orders perfectly without writing them down (in my personal experience very rare - I usually get nervous if I don't see an order pad). One of the group went back to the waiter after the meal, and he admitted that he didn't remember any of the researchers or their meal. Once the party was served, he forgot them.

Zeigarnick was intrigued by this and began experimenting with this situation. She eventually came up with the Zeigarnick Effect - "Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one's mind. Once this task is completed and the goal is reached, however, this stream of reminders comes to a stop" (Willpower, p. 81). Addition studies on the Zeigarnick Effect have shown the person does not actually have to complete the task - just make a plan. The unconscious mind accepts the plan of action, and lets conscious mind move on (p.83-4).

What if hoarders are somehow trapped in a Zeigarnick effect gone wrong? Are they unable to make a plan, to process the details into the big picture, so that they can move on?

In the second part of this post, we will explore decision fatigue.


Anonymous said...

What about good old fashioned procrastination? Maybe hoarders don't even get to a point where they mentally formulate a plan - they just tell themselves "tomorrow, next week, next month, after my next vacation, etc."?

Anonymous said...

I admit to procrastinating at time and work best with external or self-set deadlines.

Formulating a plan often involves figuring out how long a task will take. I know that when I think about cleaning the refrigerator, I always think (plan) that it will take hours and hours - and put it off. Then, when I actually do it, I am pleasantly surprised that it took only 30 or 40 minutes - throwing things away AND washing down the drawers and trays.

Maybe hoarders and other people who have difficulty with routines have trouble estimating time involved - and even with task that don't require lots of decision-making - end up putting them off? Since I don't do a major cleaning of my frig often - I admit that I don't automatically think - oh, it will just be a quick 30 minute job.

I am sure procrastination is a big part of how situations develop and don't get resolved - but, what is behind procrastination - why do people say tomorrow, next week, next month?

Usually, I am able to say in all honestly - oh, "that took a lot less time than I thought it would" - or, "that was not as bad as I thought it would". Maybe hoarders experiences early on were NOT like that. Maybe, for them, it did take a lot more time and was more difficult for them to complete than they had thought or planned, because of their difficulty with decision-making. It makes sense that they would get into the habit of avoiding such situations or give up trying to maintain.

Anonymous said...

Read the October 13th post.