The psychology behind hoarding: what were the traits of hoarders during the pandemic?

A new study on the psychology behind hoarding finds people who stockpiled during the pandemic scored high on extraversion and neuroticism.

A new study into the psychology behind hoarding finds that people who hoarded during the early days of the pandemic tended to score high in the Big Five personality traits of extraversion and neuroticism.

At the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, supermarkets around the world witnessed many empty shelves.

These shortages fed the media’s seemingly insatiable appetite for articles about why people were hoarding toilet paper.

Though many of those articles were lighthearted, stockpiling during a crisis is actually a serious issue.

It can lead to increased scarcity of essential items like medicine, especially for vulnerable groups such as the elderly.  

What defines the people who stockpiled? The psychology behind hoarding

That explains why researcher Jesper Dammeyer of the University of Copenhagen decided to investigate the psychology behind hoarding.

Why do some people horde scarce goods in times of crisis, while others do not? His results have just appeared in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Via social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn, Dammeyer recruited 265 adult participants from Denmark and the United Kingdom.

He collected data in March and April of 2020, just after the Danish and British governments had announced country-wide lockdowns.

The participants answered questions about how much “extra shopping” they had done in relation to the Coronavirus outbreak.

The possible answers, on a four-point scale, ranged from “none at all” to “a lot.” Participants also answered questions about whether they thought this kind of extra shipping is okay.

Respondents also completed a 10-item personality survey (the BFI-10).

This test measures the Big Five personality traits of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and emotional stability (also known as neuroticism).

What are common hoarder personality traits?

The study also noted the participants’ gender, age, educational level, and health literacy, as well as their attitudes to their government’s response to the crisis.

Finally, participants took a test of “social dominance orientation.” SDO involves responding to statements such as “An ideal society requires some groups to be on top and others to be on the bottom” and “We should not push for group equality.” Among all participants, 39% reported no extra shopping due to the Coronavirus crisis.

About 38% reported “a little,” 21% said “some,” and 1.5% “a lot.”

Interestingly, 51% of the Danish respondents hoarded less (i.e. they reported “no extra shopping”) than British respondents.

The study found no significant associations with gender, age, or level of education.

Hoarders score high in extraversion and neuroticism

In terms of the Big 5 traits, the hoarding personality correlates with high scores on extraversion and neuroticism, and low scores on conscientiousness and openness.

The study found no significant associations with the Big 5 trait of agreeableness.

These findings were largely in line with what Dammeyer had expected.

For example, prior research shows that people high in neuroticism overreact to stress, and have a harder time coping with stressful situations.

Likewise, the study linked high scores on openness to lower levels of extra shopping, which comports with previous findings.

People high in openness show greater flexibility in dealing with changes, and this might make them less likely to stockpile

High scores on conscientiousness also corresponded with a lower tendency to engage in extra shopping.

Dammeyer suggests this is because conscientious people are often disciplined, organized, and responsible.

Less conscientious people, on the other hand, are more likely to behave impulsively and break the rules. 

Extraverts hoarded for the thrill of it all

Extraverts’ increased propensity to stockpile, Dammeyer suggests, might be because extraverts are more social, and more excitement-seeking.

As Dammeyer writes, “for some people [i.e. extraverts], doing extra shopping appears to be related to social activity and doing something active, whereas for others, it appears to be linked to reasons of panic and worry.”

Stockpilers also more strongly held the view that the government should be doing more to stop the Coronavirus epidemic.

The less confident they were in how their government was managing the outbreak, the more likely they were to do extra shopping, and to believe that such shopping is okay.

The study also found that stockpiling correlates significantly with high scores on the social dominance scale.

Past research has found that a high SDO score generally means less empathy, tolerance, communality, and altruism.

Limitations of the study include its relatively small sample size, and an overrepresentation of women and people with higher education.

But despite the limitations, Dammeyer writes, this study “gives a first look into the individual differences that might explain stockpiling behavior at a time of crisis.”

Addressing the psychology behind hoarding: what treatments work?

Although not everyone who hoarded during the ongoing pandemic has a problem, hoarding disorder is indeed a serious mental health issue.

According to the DSM-5, hoarding disorder is a “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.” Hoarding disorder is also characterized by a person feeling the need to have (often excessive) amounts of a specific object or things, and the sense of compulsion to keep those things.

There is no single, easy-to-implement way of treating hoarding disorder.

However, depending on the type and amount of hoarding disorder symptoms, people can be offered a number of interventions.

  • Lifestyle changes such as ensuring that important household possessions are stored in a safe place and access is always restricted.
  • Rehabilitation: This may be in a hospital or in the community. It can include counseling and group or individual treatment.
  • Treatment by a psychiatrist: There is no effective treatment for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but behavioral therapy is helpful in treating hoarding.

It is important to seek treatment for hoarding disorder as it can have a significant impact on a person’s life.

It can become a form of dependence, and as such, can become a serious mental health problem.

Study: “An explorative study of the individual differences associated with consumer stockpiling during the early stages of the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak in Europe”
Author: Jesper Dammeyer (Department of Psychology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark)
Published in: Personality and Individual Differences , Volume 167 
Publication date: July 22, 2020
Photo: by Mick Haupt on Unsplash