Hoarding and Irrational Behavior

This spring I took an online course from Coursera, Irrational Behavior,  as taught by Dr. Dan Ariely, in conjunction with Duke University.

Dr.Dan Ariely Cartoon

Dr. Dan Ariely Cartoon


It was a fascinating course, one that I enjoyed immensely. Different weeks focused on different subjects: Decision Illusions, Money, Cheating and Crime, Work, Self control, how emotions affect decision making. There was always another great insight about human behavior from some experiment that Dr. Ariely or other researchers had conducted.

Part of the class involved some writing assignments. The first assignment was to write a paper to solve a problem, using the principles covered in the Irrational Behavior course.

From the course guidelines, “Solve a Problem”:
There are three parts to this assignment: 1) Describe a problematic behavior 2) Outline existing research 3) Propose a solution. Basically, you will come up with a research-based solution to a problem, applying something that you have learned in this class to a real world problem

I’d seen those shows on television about hoarders, and I decided to apply the Irrational Behavior concepts to hoarding.  When you think of it, it is a most irrational behavior.

When I first started writing, I actually came up with seven principles from the Irrational Behavior course that could be applied. However I had an 800 word limit, and so only applied three principles from the course, to the hoarding behavior.

With over 100K students signed up for the course, it’s too much effort for the professor, or teacher’s assistants to do the grading. Instead the grading is peer reviewed. All students are given the rubric, and you grade the papers of others, and get points for doing the peer reviews. I found it really interesting to see the essays of the others.

Writing has often been a weak point of mine. But I ended up getting perfect marks from every peer reviewer! As you can imagine, I was very pleased with this.


Notes On Plagiarizing:

The essay follows. For those of you who are taking online courses, you should not need to be told not to plagiarize this work. For one thing, it violates the Coursera honor code. For another reason, the big data capabilities of Coursera and other companies will most certainly discover your copying soon enough, and you will fail your project. That will be most counterproductive.




Can Behavioral Economics Be Used To Explain Or Modify the Actions of Hoarders?

Many of us have seen the television shows about people who have hoarded so much stuff in their house, they cannot do anything because of the clutter, even prepare food, or eat at the table.

Hoarding creates a lot of problems; both for the hoarder and those around them. One is just navigating through a congested obstacle course of stuff in a house becomes difficult. To get something requires searching through stacks of stuff. To put something away requires disassembly and assembly of all the stuff in the cramped area, as well as thinking and decisions on how to do it. Another problem is that there are no areas to do any real work such as counters, tables or workbenches. All this consumes a huge amount of time and energy of the people who live in such a house.

A number of the principles of behavioral economics in the course, A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, might explain hoarders’ behavior.

One explanation of the behavior, is The Price Of Free (Week 2, Video 8). We only see the benefits, not the costs, when things are free. Assuming that much of the stuff hoarders accumulate is free, it has little or no marginal cost. However, the energy required to store and maintain it over its life is never factored in to the decision. Paul Graham makes similar points in his essay on Stuff: http://www.paulgraham.com/stuff.html

The principle of loss aversion (Week 2, Video 6) also applies. Losses are perceived as 2.5 times more powerful than gains. So, while a piece of 2 by 4 inch lumber saved for a possible future project might cost only $1, in the hoarder’s mind, it is worth much more. The studies referenced would estimate perhaps $2.50. If the lumber is disposed of, but then later needed for a project, the perceived price to replace it in the future could become even larger, if the other cost of time to get it is considered.

Another principle is the endowment effect (Week 2, Video 6). In the paper, “For Whom Is Parting With Possessions More Painful”, by Maddux, Yang, Falk, Adam, Adair, Endo, Carmon, and Heine, some random subjects were given mugs and told that they now owned them, and, they could either keep the mugs, or sell them. Other random subjects played the role of buyers. It turned out that the sellers valued the mugs much more than the buyers. In some cases, buyers would only sell the mug at a price near $6, whereas the buyer would only pay less than $3. The conclusion was that once people own something, they identify with it, and favor the objects they own. Thus, it becomes hard for many to give up the object. Applying the endowment effect to hoarders, once they have acquired something, even worthless junk, they value it highly.

So it seems there is not one, but actually numerous behavioral forces affecting hoarders.

One possible solution to hoarding might be to take hoarders to the estate sales of elegant homes. The purpose would not be to buy more stuff. The purpose would be to show that at the end of the life of these elegant people, what they had accumulated was in fact valuable enough to be sold. Then, a comparison could be made between the elegant estate, to the “estate” of the hoarder, much of which would not be saleable at all.

Another variation, more controlled and repeatable, would be to show pictures of these elegant estate sales, detailing how much the various items sold for, such as antique furniture. Then, different questions could be asked of the hoarders to pre-plan their own estate sale, listing the value of their accumulated objects. Beneficiaries such as sons or daughters could also put values on the various items, as could professionals who complete estate sales. The differences could then be noted to the hoarder.

Since hoarders emotionally value their stuff more than anyone, the intended effect might actually backfire. Instead of getting them to let go of their things, hoarders might in fact cling to them even stronger.


For Whom Is Parting With Possessions More Painful? : Cultural Differences in the Endowment Effect. William W. Maddux, Haiyang Yang, Carl Falk, Hajo Adam, Wendi Adair, Yumi Endo, Ziv Carmon and Steven J. Heine. Psychological Science 2010 21: 1910 originally published online 19 November 2010. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610388818)

Paul Graham, Stuff

By Rodger Lepinsky
For the course Irrational Behavior, Duke University, 2014

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