“I steal cracker packets. I hoard them. Once my collection is large enough, I’ll take them to the flea market and try to sell them to discerning lovers.”
My parents like to watch the show American Pickers, so when we go home for the holidays, we usually wind up watching an episode (or 20) of the show.
For those of you who don’t watch much TV (like me), the basis of the show is that the stars are experts at reselling valuables – kind of like high end pawn shop people – and they go around the country sifting through junkyards, homes, estate sales, whatever to find the valuables in the piles of crap that people have accumulated.
Invariably, they arrive at a house or barn and there’s someone there to tell stories about good ol’ Aunt Clare (not her real name) who loved collecting cat sweaters or some such “collectible.” However, somewhere in the process of collecting high end cat sweaters, Aunt Clare got on a roll. As a result, every room in the house is filled with useless crap and a couple of worthwhile cat sweaters.
It’s the job of the American pickers to sift through the crap and buy the worthwhile cat sweaters so they can take those cat sweaters home and resell them for a hefty profit.
What they never show is how the poor yutz who is left behind has to deal with all of the other useless garbage that Aunt Clare collected over the past 75 years before becoming buried in it one day and suffocating because she was unable to escape.
Side train of thought: how do these people make enough money to afford to buy all of this stuff? It doesn’t just magically appear in your spare bedroom, like how coat hangers reproduce. Am I the only one who watches these shows and wonders what the household budget of a typical hoarder looks like (assuming one exists)?
- Food: $300
- Mortgage: $800
- Car: $200
- Cat sweaters: $5,850
But what happened to poor Aunt Clare in the first place? She had a nice little collection of a few worthwhile, potentially valuable cat sweaters, and somewhere along the way, she rockets herself off the cliff and winds up with a house full of rubbish.
According to Psychology Today’s Matthew Shanahan, at some point along the way, with a typical hoarder, the ability to estimate how much pleasure a given object will give that person gets out of whack. A rational person (which, to be fair, nobody is truly homo economicus) would make a rough guess at how much pleasure a given item or experience would provide and then come up with a price scale for it. All the pleasures have relative values, so we spend varying amounts for them.
By the way, we tend to overestimate the pleasure that we get from material goods (unless there is an associated memory or sentiment attached to that item) and underestimate the pleasure that we get from experiences, leading us to spend way too much money on stuff vis a vis experiences.
A hoarder, on the other hand, skews the expected pleasure from an item way off the scale while keeping the price scale relatively constant. Thus, a $10 cat sweater suddenly will provide, to the hoarder, way more entertainment and pleasure than it would to the average cat sweater aficionado.
To further complicate the hoarder’s situation, he or she then runs into Prospect Theory. As we saw in “Will Annuities Make You Happier,” Prospect Theory makes you expect more pain from losing something than joy you would get at receiving something of the same value.
So, the hoarder buys a cat sweater (or something else), finds it’s not as fun as expected, but thinks that getting rid of the cat sweater will cause more pain, and she or he might one day regret getting rid of that cat sweater. Thus, up into the attic/spare bedroom/closet/kitchen/car it goes along with all of its friends.
Additionally, the hoarder thinks in terms of a scarcity mindset (much like a politician, as we saw in “The Scarcity Mindset, The Abundance Mindset, and the Impact on Public Policy”). That line of thinking leads the hoarder to believe that there are only so many cat sweaters in the world, so he or she needs to scarf up (haha! get it?) as many cat sweaters as possible before they run out.
OK, you may be thinking. That’s all well and good. We’ve done a thorough psychological evaluation of the people that we see on some of those “reality” shows.