Monday, October 24, 2011

Hoarding and Creativity revisited

"Maybe hoarding is creativity run amok."(Stuff, p. 211)

" "She's like a savant", Ashley said. "Her brain can see things mine can't. I can see the beauty in objects, but it's like she sees the atoms of objects. She sees more than anyone I know and attaches more meaning to each piece of it." "(Stuff, p. 221)

A common characteristic of hoarders in Stuff is their creativity. Alvin, Irene, and Madeline all have the ability to make rich connections between people and objects. Daniel saved items in the hopes of someday building with them. Madeline made "stuff structures" - three-dimenional art, out of how she left her clutter.

Unfortunately, hoarders never make final creations with their clutter. They are able to conceptualize in their head but not act upon their creative ideas. Something causes a disconnect between the desire and the will.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Apology for not posting recently

I will post on both hoarding and creativity and hoarding and safety by tomorrow morning.

Please be sure to check back on Sunday.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hoarding and Creativity

Several of the hoarders mentioned in Stuff were creative people. In one chapter, the daughter of a hoarder described how thanks to her mother, she was able to see the beauty in tree bark; her mother had rapsodizedabout the blues and red of the milk cartons that she hoarded. The two brother hoarders had strong aesthetic senses and hoarded art. Even Daniel hoarded items because he saw their creative potential,although he never utilized them.

All of these people possesed strong, creative impulses that they instead channeled into hoarding. In a sense, hoarding became an expression of their creativity. Once again, I found myself wondering what these people might have done in the MIddle Ages. Irene could have become a librarian in a convent or monastery, and spent her copying books and organizing them in the convent library. The girl's mother could have become a weaver or embroiderer, which would have let her use her strong sense of color. Daniel's ability to find potentially useful objects could havebeen utilized by a military quartermaster. Is it possible that the emphasis on consumerism in American society, missing in warlier societies, helped encourgage these people to hoard because they lacked the willpower to focus on their art instead of consuming and buying? 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Hoarding and the Middle Ages - Part 2

Baumeister and Tierney start off Willpower with the comment that

"We have no way of knowing how much our ancestors exercised self-control in the days before beepers and experimental psychologists, but it seems likely that they were under less strain. During the Middle Ages, most people were peasants who put in long, dull days in the field, frequently accompanied by prodigious amounts of ale. They weren't angling for promotions at work or trying to climb the social ladder, so there wasn't a premium on diligence (or a great need for sobriety). Their villages didn't offer many obvious temptations beyond alcohol, sex, or plain old sloth. Virtue was generally enforced by a desire to avoid public disgrace rather than by any zeal to achieve human perfection. In the medieval Catholic Church, salvation depended more on being part of the group and keeping up with the standard rituals rather than on heroic acts of willpower." (p.4)

While I am not a scholar of the Middle Ages, this struck me as somewhat simplistic. A key feature of the Middle Ages was war - in the Holy Land, among the Italian city-states, against the King of France by his vassals, among different claimants for the throne of England. At any point in time, men could be called up to fight for their liege lord, or endure armies trampling their crops and looting their houses.

Farming itself is stressful. A drought, too much rain, or a freak hail storm could quickly destroy a crop, create hunger over the winter, and lead to deaths from starvation or disease brought on by malnutrition. It is also physically taxing in a time when there were few ways to relieve pain from arthritis or poorly-set broken limbs. A simple cut could fester and cause death. A cold could bring on pneumonia. Childbirth fever killed many women.

What may have made a difference in the Middle Ages was diet. Everyone ate unprocessed, organically grown, local food. Peasants could afford few sweeteners (such as honey) or sweet fruits, and subsisted almost entirely on whole grains. If they did eat meat, it was from a free-range, organically fed animal. They may have had little food, but it was healthy. The lack of sugar, the quality of the carbohydrates, and the protein would have led to fewer glucose spikes. This would have led to less depletion of willpower due to inadequent glucose. Diet, not lack of stress in daily life, could have given our medieval ancestors more willpower.

There were few material goods in the Middle Ages. The average person wore home-made clothes, ate home-grown food, and rarely set foot in a shop or even browsed at a marketstall. Members of religious orders were sworn to poverty. The emphasis in society was not on consumption, in part because of religious teachings and in part because resources were so limited. A person who hoarded rocks might find that family members confiscated the rocks to mend walls in pastures. A woman who hoarded cats would be prosecuted as a witch (along with the cats).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Procrastination and Health

One of the constant themes in Willpower is the fact that willpower is depleted when a person's glucose level gets too low. Baumeister's lab tests involve giving people sugar-filled drinks to boost their glucose levels quickly to help with the study results. Outside of a lab, he suggests "it's better to use protein. Get some healthy food into your body, wait an hour, and then the decision won't seem so overwhelming" (p. 247).  

Baumeister also reviews studies done on the health of extreme procrastinators. At the beginning of the studies, the procrastinators were healthier than the non-procrastinators, but the situation reversed as deadlines approached (p. 242-3). Interestingly enough, procrastination has increased over the last four decades, and about 20% of the international population describes itself as procrastinators (p.240).

Many hoarders have kitchens so cluttered that they cannot cook or eat in them. This would definitely impact their ability to eat healthy food as most takeout (in my experience) is considerably less healthy than what people cook at home. As such, hoarders through cluttering may have created situations that acerbate their inability to decide what to discard. If the hoarder views him/herself as a procrastinator, this could affect his/her health, which would once again affect decision-making. If you know that you have trouble making decisions, and putting them off is affecting your health, the lack of energy may cause you to put them off even further.

Strategies to Unclutter

Frost and Steketee offer some strategies for hoarders to use to declutter in Stuff. However, their second book, Buried in Treasures, is a workbook for hoarders and the family, friends, and social workers who want to help them declutter. In both books, the authors encourage the hoarder to sit down with a helper. The hoarder then begins to decided whether to keep and item or to discard it. At the beginning, each decision is very time-consuming for the hoarder, but eventually, as the hoarder declutters, s/he can spend more time decluttering with less time spent on each decision.

An earlier commenter on a post suggested that one reason hoarders don't declutter is because s/he overestimates the amount of time spent on the decluttering process. Frost and  Steketee's exercises are a good way to develop a more realistic idea of how long it will take to declutter. In addition, the exercises are also a good way to build willpower.

Baumeister and Tierney devote an entire chapter in Willpower to the famed explorer Henry Stanley (of Stanley and Livingston fame). Stanley early in life came up with some habits (such as shaving daily even while trecking through a rain forest) that enabled him to lead a disciplined and successful life. While others in his party were going crazy, starving to death, or getting killed in the bush, he perservered. Baumeister and Tierney eventually concluded that you should "use your self-control to form a daily habit, and you'll produce more with less effort in the long run"(p.159).

An ingrained habit requires no decision, and thus uses no willpower. If Irene, for example, spent a month separating her mail into bill and recycle on a daily basis, she will eventually not have to think when she opens those envelopes - she will instinctively start to sort. This will conserve her willpower and let her made additonal decisions.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hoarding, Willpower, and Possibilities Revisited

In their chapter on  decision fatigue, Baumeister and Teirney revisit the idea that people have trouble making decisions because to do so eliminates options. "This reluctance to give up options becomes more pronounced when willpower is low. It takes willpower to make decisions,and so the depleted state makes people look for ways to postpone or evade decisions" (Willpower, p. 99)

Several of the hoarders profiled in Stuff hoard because they see creative possibilites in the things they hoard. When they look at an egg carton, they see a craft project. When they look at a six-foot stack of magazines, they see decoupage materials. Some of them, such Daniel in Stuff, take it to extremes and appear to view everything as of potential creative use. Frost and Steketee give a horrifying description of Daniel's sister's coop, which is overrun by roaches from the garbage that Daniel is hoarding in it; he has already filled his own, and is now taking over her apartment.

For the creative hoarders, throwing something out means a loss of a creative opportunity. They think of themselves as potential artists or inventors or handymen. To thow out the stuff that they have collected means that they have admitted that they are not artists or inventors or handymen. They cannot bring themselves to face this impact on their self-image, this loss of an option of self, so they hoard.

Hoarding, Willpower, and Decision Fatigue, Part 2

As I discussed in my previous post, many hoarders appear to be complex thinkers. When they think A, they then think B, C, D,and E. Irene in Stuff, for example, was unable to throw out her mail because she broke it down into over a dozen categories (instead of bills to pay and to recycle) which tired her out so much, she could not finish deciding what to do with the resulting categorized piles
According to Willpower:
"The link between willpower and decision making works both ways: Decision making depletes your willpower,and once your willpower is depleted, you're less able to make decisions.If your work requires you to make hard decisions all day long, at some point you're going to be depleted and start looking for ways to conserve energy. You'll look for excuses to avoid or postpone decisions. You' ll look for the easiest and the safest option, which is often to stick with the status quo: Leave the prisoner in prison."

Complex thinkers make decisons all the time because sorting through their mind is so complicated. This in itself is tiring. As a result, their willpower is depleted very quickly. It is not to decided about clutter, and to leave it alone. When Frost and Steketee work with hoarders, they have the hoarders declutter for small amounts of time and work their way up to longer periods in order to avoid decision fatigue.

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.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hoarding, Willpower, and Possibilities

One of the individuals (Irene) studied in Stuff has trouble throwing things away because to do so would be to limit her possibilities. Frost and Steketee admit that when they experiment in how treat her "one goal of the experiment was to teach her how to tolerate uncertainty regarding unrealized opportunities"(Stuff, p. 42). She needed to learn to accept the fact that she could not take advantage of all possible opportunities. Eventually, Irene learned to give up items although when she did so, she told a story of why she had kept the items. For Irene, "often just telling that story loosened her connection to it and allowed her to let it go"(Stuff, p. 43).

In Willpower, Baumeister and Tierney devote an entire chapter to the to-do list. One of the people they consult for this chapter is man named David Allen, who has come up with the "Getting Stuff Done" method, for which he apparently charges thousands of dollars from celebrity clients like Jim Carrey. According to Allen:

"'When we're trying to decide what to do with our stuff or what movie to see,' Allen says,"we don't think to ourselves, Look at all these cool choices. There's a powerful thing inside that says, If I decide to do that movie, I kill all the other movies. You can pretend all the way up to that point that you know the right thing to do, but once you're faced with a choice, you have to deal with this open loop in your head: You're wrong, you're right, you're wrong, you're right. Every single time you make a choice, you're stepping into an existential void." (Willpower, pp. 86-87).

Each choice will create a new timeline, space/time continuum, etc. In order to choose, people either have to deliberately stay unconscious of the consequences of their choice, or accept them.

  • Is it possible that hoarders are more attuned to this existential void?
  • Are they just more aware of the consequences of their choices?
  • Or, as Stuff seems to imply, are they are unable to distinguish between consequential and inconsequential choices, and treat all of them as consequential?

Hoarding and Willpower - Part 2

Bauermeister and Tierney discuss, in Willpower, the results of years of study on this subject. What they've discovered is that everyone has a certain amount of willpower, which the person then proceeds to use up during a day. If you use up lots of willpower trying to get through the day at a job that you hate, you will have less willpower at other times of the day.

One study followed college students at finals time. The college students (not surprisingly) wore dirty clothes, ate junk food, and neglected to bathe or clean their room. Instead, they either studied or wasted time procrastinating before studying. The exam preparation took all their willpower, and did not leave enough for them to maintain more reasonable standards of cleanliness.

Other studies dealt with decision fatigue. People forced to make many decisions(such as deciding what to add to their bridal registry) tended to finally break down in fatigue. They broke down even more so if they have nothing invested or lacked real control in the answer.

Finally, Bauermeister and Tierney looked at the effect of possiblity on willpower and decisions. I will discuss this more in the next post.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hoarding and Willpower - Part 1

Frost and Steketee also mention that Irene has trouble making decisions about what to keep and what to discard. While everyone has the problem at various times, it is an extreme problem for Irene and other hoarders. One of the ways that the authors train the hoarders who come to them for help is to teach them to make decisions. They have the hoarder analyze how s/he feels after s/he discards an object. S/he rates her level of anxiety immediately after s/he discards the object, then at various times over a week. The hoarder eventually realizes that while s/he initially cannot live without the discarded object,s/he will get over it quickly. This realization is an incentive for her/him to discard more items.

I was recently listening to WNYC and heard a segment about a new book called
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. While my initial reaction was dubious (it seemed to justify dumping sugar in my coffee as well as the muscular Christianity of the Victorians), I soon realized that Baumeister is a reputable social psychologist who based his theories on many different studies. Chapter 4 of his book is entitled "Decision Fatigue", a problem that is affecting most Americans and not just American hoarders. The WNYC discussion can be found here:

I draw parallels between Stuff and Willpower in my next post.

Hoarding and Associations

Frost and Steketee's first subject is a woman named Irene. Irene, a librarian by occupation, came to them for help. She was in the middle of a divorce, and was afraid that her cluttered house would lose her custody of her children. The two authors spent much time with Irene. It became apparent that every item that she saved had some kind of strong association for her. Because she was an extremely social woman, Irene often kept these items because she wanted to give them to other people. In some cases, she thought the items could eventually become useful.

To Irene, every item represented an opportunity, either for her or a friend. Throwing away the item would destroy the opportunity, elimimate a potential life path. Since each item contained such potential, it was difficult for Irene to discard it because to do so would be to also discard a possible future. Frost and Steketee hypothsized"perhaps the idea of a potential opportunity...was better than the reality..." (p.37) Irene also had trouble sorting through mail because she became too involved into sorting it into categories rather than reading it or recycling it.

What I found interesting was that Irene could remember so many associations for the items that she saved. She apparently had an excellent memory, and was capable of creating a complex series of connections for the random objects in her house. By saving clutter, she was building a literal memory palace in her house or a giant scrapbook. The difference between Irene and the average scrapbooker is that she took it to an extreme, and didn't throw in funky colored paper, stickers, or little charms.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

DId people hoard in the Middle Ages?

I chose Stuff for this online book discussion nearly two months ago. During this time, I've had numerous discussions with friends about hoarding. Questions that came up were:

  • has the number of hoarding cases increased in the past decade or is hoarding just recognized and reported more?
  • did hoarding really exist prior to industrialized society?
  • if so, what did people hoard?
  • was hoarding bad in pre-industrialized societies, or viewed as necessary for survival?
Stuff begins with a quote from Dante, where he describes hoarders and wasters battling it out in The Inferno. Although I am not an expert in medieval & Renaissance history, I am assuming that Dante is referring to the wealthy aristocrats and merchants, who accumulated lands and goods in order to advance their families, reward their followers, and who would have been horrified by family wastrals. Nevertheless, did ordinary people hoard before consumerism became the driving force behind society? If not, what drove them to begin doing so? Was the hoarding impulse precipitated by changes social class and structure?

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O.Frost & Gail Steketee

Introduction to Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding
and the Meaning of Things by Randy O.Frost & Gail Steketee:

I am not a hoarder, but I several relatives who are hoarders. As a child, I was terrified of our family basement. It was dark, damp, cold, and crammed full of books, old toys, unused construction material, garish china animals, and furniture belonging to relatives who had moved to Florida and died. I was afraid to let my kitten go down into it because there was a chance that he would never return. One day, my mother gazed upon this disorder in horror from the safety of the stairs, uttered the immortal line “I see dead people’s furniture,” and donated most of the clutter to charitable institutions.

Over the years, I’ve spent much time assisting family members with clutter removal and organization. As a result, I’ve become overly conscious of the amount of type of possessions that I do own; I knew I had a problem when my movers told me, as I paid them off, to go buy some furniture. I became fascinated with why some members of my family hoard, and other are neat and minimalistic.

Frost and Steketee revolutionized not only the study of why people hoard, but also how to treat hoarders. While Stuff was written for the general public, they also co-authored a second book, Buried in Treasures that is a workbook for hoarders, their family members, and anyone who wants to help a hoarder declutter. The case studies in Stuff reveal the positive impulses behind the actions of hoarders – impulses that ultimately become twisted and potentially hazardous. This October book discussion will focus on issues – both biological and environmental in origin - raised about hoarders in Stuff.