The Link Between Hoarding and Loneliness

If you tend to overshop and find material items comforting, it could be a sign that you're lonely. We explain the relationship between these two realities.
The Link Between Hoarding and Loneliness
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 20 December, 2022

Today, we appear to be suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. Indeed, in an increasingly individualistic and competitive world, human connections are conspicuous by their absence and single-person households are on the increase.

Although being alone isn’t necessarily synonymous with emotional loneliness, in reality, we’re social beings. It seems that an absence of meaningful ties leads some people to hoard objects to fill that void.

As a matter of fact, this is a trend in which most of us are immersed. We’ve become increasingly consumerist and the Internet and new technologies facilitate our acquisition of goods from the comfort of our own homes. Therefore, instead of spending quality time with other people and building and nurturing strong, meaningful relationships, we spend increasingly more time shopping online.

Compulsive buying behavior (CBB) has increased worldwide during the past two decades. However, not all of us are affected equally by this trend. So, what is it that makes us more likely to replace affection and company with material goods? Let’s find out.

Man collecting cars

The tendency to accumulate and hoard

The predisposition to hoard and accumulate is quite common in the animal kingdom. The human brain is also programmed to do so, especially when we can’t rely on a safe and regular availability of supplies. In fact, to some degree, we all enjoy having a full larder and multiple items of clothing or decorative objects. It’s just that some of us take it to the extreme.

People with hoarding disorder tend to hoard objects that they can’t part with. Indeed, the mere idea of doing so causes them enormous anxiety. This is either because they feel they might need them in the future or because they attribute an emotional meaning to them. Consequently, the objects fill up their homes and become a significant source of discomfort for them.

These  individuals generally have fewer and poorer quality social relationships. Moreover, they often have difficulty relating to others and use their possessions and collections as a way to link up with a happy past or to cope with loneliness.

Why loneliness leads to hoarding

So why do some people choose to fill their social and emotional voids with material goods? A study conducted in 2018 provides some interesting information in this regard:

Anthropomorphism

The study claims that one answer is found in anthropomorphism, the tendency to attribute human characteristics and qualities to non-human entities. Just like the child who claims that their doll has feelings or the protagonist in the movie, Castaway, who becomes attached to a ball he calls Wilson.

People who live lonely lives with a greater need for affection and company may anthropomorphize animals and objects. This makes up for the lack of warmth that they achieve from social contact. From turning to a stuffed animal for comfort to naming their technological gadgets, there are many ways we inadvertently attribute will, opinions, or emotions to objects. It’s been proven that the loneliest people do it more frequently.

Anxiety intolerance

It seems that those who have greater difficulties in tolerating anxiety are more likely to acquire and collect objects. This intolerance to distress is due to the lack of adaptive coping mechanisms.

In these instances, when facing adversity, the individual resorts to guilt or rumination and feels both overemotional and overwhelmed. Consequently, they find comfort in objects (and their acquisition) in the face of negative emotions that are unbearable and uncontrollable.

Anxious attachment

The tendency to acquire and collect objects excessively is also found in those with anxious attachment styles. These individuals experience negative emotions more frequently and intensely and feel less able to cope.

In addition, they tend to have emotional deficiencies and a need for connection and emotional security. That’s why they attribute human qualities to objects to cover their unsatisfied social needs. They may even find in excessive buying and hoarding a kind of sense of belonging that they really crave.

Hoarding and loneliness

Research on this issue suggests that collecting, acquiring, or becoming attached to objects helps certain individuals make up for their lack of social connections. Therefore, it can be a help to them at any given time. However, this isn’t healthy and they should seek support to learn how to build and sustain significant human bonds.

Finally, the results of the research suggest that, if we want to combat a tendency to excessive accumulation, working on anthropomorphism and intolerance to anxiety is a good starting point.

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Objects and Self-Identity: What Your Possessions Say About You
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  • Epley, N., Waytz, A., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2007). On seeing human: A three-factor theory of anthropomorphism. Psychological Review, 114(4), 864–886. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.114.4.864
  • Granero, R., Fernández-Aranda, F., Mestre-Bach, G., Steward, T., Baño, M., del Pino-Gutiérrez, A., … & Jiménez-Murcia, S. (2016). Compulsive buying behavior: Clinical comparison with other behavioral addictions. Frontiers in Psychology7, 914.
  • Instituto Nacional de Estadística. (2020). Encuesta continua de hogareshttps://www.ine.es/prensa/ech_2020.pdf
  • Norberg, M. M., Crone, C., Kwok, C., & Grisham, J. R. (2018). Anxious attachment and excessive acquisition: The mediating roles of anthropomorphism and distress intolerance. Journal of Behavioral Addictions7(1), 171-180.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.