The COVID-19 pandemic became a macro laboratory, when government changed their policy and forced us into lockdown. Back in April 2020, Economic Forum was already warning ‘Lockdown is the world’s biggest psychological experiment – and we will pay the price’. And indeed we did in many sometimes surprising ways, like situational hoarding for example.
Fast forward to February 2021, when Journal Nature reported ‘millions of deaths, economic strife and unprecedented curbs on social interaction have already had a marked effect on people’s mental health’.
More than 42% of people surveyed in United States had reported symptoms of anxiety or depression the previous December. And this was 11% greater than a year before. Could this mean we could expect more orders for clearing hoarded houses in Britain?
Are Panic Buying and Stockpiling Both Situational Hoarding?
Carol Mathews writing in QZ Com inspired this article, and we commend her initiative in collating data. Certainly, compulsive purchasing caused a stir on the eve of the first lockdown. Who can forget panic buying trolley loads of toilet paper, just in case? And sage advice what to do in the event this ran out?
The American Psychiatric Association must have had a field day observing this compulsion. Now they define hoarding disorder as ‘persistent difficulty getting rid of or parting with possessions, due to a perceived need to save the items’.
If we add the generally accepted convention hoarders save their collections ‘in case there is a future need’, then what we saw back then was surely ‘situational hoarding’ manifesting before our eyes?
What Do We Mean by Situational Behaviour?
Psychology draws a clear distinction between dispositional and situational behaviour. Dispositional acts stem from individual psycho social factors. For example, if I love the great outdoors I am drawn naturally to a path leading through the moors.
However, if there are situational circumstances – let’s imagine a wildfire raging behind me – then my scrambling away is more like to be situational behaviour driven by a need to survive. Psychologists and sociologists use attribution theory to explain how and why we behave, sometimes unpredictably too.
But Can We Relate Hoarding to Situational Behaviour?
Psychologists have struggled unsuccessfully to define the triggers of compulsive hoarding, and the need for help clearing hoarded houses surprisingly frequently.
They know hoarding often begins after a dramatic event, such as loss of partner, motor accident, severe disease, or other traumatic experience. In this sense, we might tentatively label hoarding as situational behaviour. However, Carol Matthews sees things differently.
Carol approaches hoarding as a lifelong chronic condition, meaning it can be controlled through medical treatment, but cannot be ‘cured’. The condition could develop as a natural outcome of aging. Or simply having fewer companions to spur us on to discard a growing lifetime of clutter, which may seem unnecessary to others.
As we work through Carol’s assessment of lockdown stockpiling, we become aware of a distinct difference between the two behaviours. That’s because panic buying has an obvious trigger (stock is running low) and the situation causing it is obvious (lockdown will disrupt supply chains).
The Value of the Stockpile in the Public Eye
Situational stockpiling also involves collecting objects that are valuable in terms of generally acceptable behaviour. Toilet rolls, hand sanitizer, bread, and bottled water are all useful things, after all.
Accumulating them is therefore rational, thoughtful and something to which we all can all relate. Whereas large collections of worn-out shoes, tabloid papers, plastic shopping bags, polystyrene takeaway containers, and junk mail manifestly are not.
The Innate Tension Between Situation and Obsession
Most of us will admit to adding a few extra packs of toilet paper to our shopping trolleys, when news of the pandemic broke. And indeed they gave us a sense of pride, and accomplishment when we made room for them in the hall cupboard. We are on top of the situation now, we assured each other. We will pull through.
But there was no similar roll-call when the pandemic settled down, and became the new normal. Our toilet paper hoard ran down as the supply chain recovered. We returned to regular shopping because the situational trigger was gone. However, in the case of compulsive hoarding the root cause appears to last a life time.
An Opportunity to View Hoarding in a Fresh Light
Compulsive hoarders seem to live in another world, but we don’t fully understand it. However, to them the situation and the need are compelling. Could this mean hoarding is a special case of situational behaviour? One that only appears irrational because we can’t understand what’s in the person’s mind?
This is food for thought, indeed. Perhaps we need to be more understanding, more helpful and more forgiving? Was it Ayn Rand who wrote ‘there is no such thing as truth, only people’s opinions’ … We’d love to know what you’re thinking at Avery Associates. Please do drop us a line.
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Preview Image: Rolls of Spare Toilet Paper