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Hoarders Can't Categorize, Cognitive Intervention May Be More Effective

Update Date: Mar 15, 2013 11:25 AM EDT

A new psychological study has found that compulsive hoarders are significantly more likely to suffer from executive dysfunction, a cognitive deficit that prevents flexible thinking and categorization skills.

Researchers say the latest findings suggest that forcing hoarder to throw away useless junk does little to solve their problems because it doesn't address the cognitive dysfunction causing the hoarding in the first place.

Researchers at Curtin University's School of Psychology in Australia studied a group of 24 compulsive hoarders between the ages of 39 and 65.  Researchers said 18 of the hoarders were women and six were men.  The compulsive hoarders were compared to an age-matched control group. 

Researchers conducted three tests.  In the first test, known as the Digit Span, participants were asked to repeat back a series of numbers spoken to them by the researcher in the original order and in reverse order.

In the second test, called the Spatial Span test, experimenters tapped a set of blocks in a sequence and asked participants to repeat the sequence in both the original and reverse order.

In the third test, called the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, participants were asked to match cards but were not told the rules of the game. In this game, the requirement of which cards are matched together, either by color or shape, was changed several times during the game.

Researchers explained that all three tests aimed at determining the participant's mental flexibility, adaptation and focus.

The findings, published in the journal Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, reveal that compulsive hoarders find it more difficult to formulate strategies and concepts and struggle with memory, attention span and categorization.

"They scored lower than an age-matched community sample of adults on things like sustained attention and organization skills," co-author of the study, Associate Professor Clare Rees from Curtin University's School of Psychology told The Conversation. "They appear to have impairments in the ability to respond flexibly to changing stimuli and showed more impulsivity in response to the tasks."

Hoarders also had problems finding similarities between objects and identifying which categories the items belonged to.

The findings may explain why compulsive hoarders generally see each item as special and unique, leading to problems in discarding items.

"For example, when faced with the decision as to what to do with a possession (such as where to store it in the home, whether to keep it or not keep it, whether to sell it or donate it to charity or discard it) a person needs to be able to sustain attention, establish some working categories or rules about what to do and follow through with the application of those rules," explained Rees.

"Our study found that each of these abilities-the ability to sustain attention, adhering to an organizational strategy, and being able to be flexible in the application of the strategy-were all impaired in our sample of hoarders," she added.

Rees said that the latest findings suggest that interventions that focus more on training the cognitive abilities of hoarders may be more effective than forcing them to reduce the amount of possessions.

"Interventions that merely attempt to reduce the amount of possessions in a hoarders home are likely to fail because they are not helping the person develop the mental skills necessary to manage their possessions effectively into the future," she explained.

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