Many studies on humans and animals have shown that intermittent rewards are more powerful than consistent rewards. This seems counter-intuitive and is worth some scrutiny to understand the role that intermittent rewards play in hoarding.

Attraction of Intermittent Rewards
There are many reasons why intermittent rewards are more powerful than consistent rewards:
- the arousal of hope – if you always receive the same reward, you soon come to expect it and take it for granted, but with intermittent rewards, you cannot know which occasion will lead to receiving the reward so you may work harder to get it

- superstition – when we do not know which of our behaviors or actions (if any) caused or lead to a reward, we are motivated to pursue whatever we imagine might have produced the reward

- risk – the reverse of hope is fear of risk; that is, by not engaging in the same behavior that may have caused the reward, we might suffer, lose, or miss out

- childhood or cultural beliefs – we may have been conditioned to believe that a particular action can produce a reward but our experience may not bear this out; fear may prevent challenging these beliefs even as adults

- duty – we may have been convinced that we have a duty to others to behave in a way that does not meet our needs or reward our expectations, but we continue performing as expected, perhaps in hopes that this will eventually change; self-denigration may contribute to believing that if we allow ourselves to be abased, our true virtues will develop or appear and be appreciated

- insulation – we engage in behaviors that do not consistently reward us because we believe that they protect us from some adverse event or deprivation even when they really only insulate us from our own feelings

- short-term vs. long-term – we may be dazzled by the promise of a short-term gain and not look at or know what our long-term best interests are; this is known as end-gaining, being so focused on a short-term reward, activity, or task that we do not consider the how or whether of our actions or their long-term impact

- wants vs. needs – people commonly have little clear awareness of the difference between wants and needs, and don’t perceive the different satisfactions these drivers produce, so they fall into pursuing intermittent rewards because they appear easy, alluring, and perhaps a little mysterious

- greener grass – the mystery factor of intermittent rewards increases the allure. An unknowable outcome but with a potential reward may seem preferable to an existing reward gotten from doing the ‘same old, same old’.

- gambling – intermittent rewards have some of the same appeal as any form of gambling: you take a chance, don’t know what the outcome will be, but maybe you will be lucky and get a reward. You may feel a little adrenalin rush from the chase.

- “easier, softer ways” – giving in to our desires or addictions is usually easier, at least in the short run, than doing the harder thing and struggling with them

Intermittent Rewards Triggers
The logical next question is why should negative or harmful desires be triggered by intermittent rewards more strongly or commonly than positive ones? Many factors favor negative behaviors:

- we do not think about the consequences of our behavior or where our actions may lead and we mostly have little experience with creating scenarios regarding potential outcomes

- doing the negative thing may seem easier, such as leaving a paper on the floor rather than picking it up immediately out of not seeing the harm that this practice causes (reinforces allowing hoard to accumulate) or imagining that it is easier

- without a clear sense of your long-term best interests, or even a clear definition of what best interests are, it is difficult to have a sense of balance or moderation that sets limits on indulgences going too far or neglecting something important

- the ‘hole in the heart’, the existential ache or sense of incompleteness that we all have due to our vulnerability, fallibility, and mortality makes us susceptible to grasping for any pleasure, distraction, or balm to soothe the ache; our attempts to ease this ache leads to many counter-productive behaviors

- being prone to short-term rather than long-term thinking, we often do not recognize the big-picture results of our actions and end-gaining; rather than controlling the various aspects of our lives that we potentially could, we do what is easiest rather than what is best

- engaging in short-term thinking undermines identifying the real priorities in our lives so we often fritter our time and energy away on unimportant activities

- lack of faith or confidence in our selves causes us to not trust in our capabilities, to think that we are dependent upon something outside ourselves to cope

- cultural, social, and childhood indoctrination often lead us to mis-identify our best interests, to value conformity and obedience rather than standing up for our true needs, health and well-being, and deepest satisfaction; we often sacrifice our own needs to the demands or needs of others, particularly when we see the other’s needs as being greater than our own or we believe (or are told) that we have a duty to a cause greater than ourselves 

- we often have an extremely difficult time seeing the reality of our situations, needs, relationships, or even society because we are mislead by many delusions that make clear thinking nearly impossible

- pain vs. pleasure – addiction often leads to over-valuing pleasure (perhaps from  fear of not experiencing it again) and under-valuing ongoing pain (perhaps from knowing that we can bear it); this delusion may feed the fear of withdrawal (an unknown pain that grows bigger in the imagination the longer we avoid it)

- taking responsibility for every aspect of our lives, thoughts, emotions, and being can be downright terrifying and most people run from it

- although abandoning delusion, negative thinking, and addiction gives enormous potential for a better life, for people immersed in addiction, particularly of long duration, it is hard to imagine having a better life or what shape that life might take, making clinging to the familiar and known seem safer

- the power of potential vs. actual rewards – it is hard to believe or accept that the long-expected use of a saved item is unlikely to ever become an actual use. The line between the reality vs. the anticipation becomes blurry.

- redemption – deep in our hearts we hope for something to validate and make worthwhile all the cost and suffering caused by acquiring and keeping so many things

- satisficing – people who hoard often have no concept of ‘enough’; if you are not clear on the difference between wants and needs or the harm that having excess belongings does, then it is hard to know where to draw any line

- salience – if you keep an item for years before discarding it, then discover a need for it a few days later, the emotional impact of the discard will be enormously greater than the awareness of the years in which you kept it to no purpose or suffered for keeping it because of the power of intermittent rewards. In your heart, you believe that if you had just kept it, and by extension, everything, then it would have been redeemed.

Undermining the Power of Intermittent Rewards
To overcome hoarding, you need to reduce the power of negative intermittent rewards and increase the power of positive ones. Many approaches can help:

- Focus on how well you coped after giving up an item; give yourself many congratulations for doing something hard and be grateful for the willingness. Foster creativity by doing tasks without depending upon any one item.

- Use perspective to put your upsets over discarded belongings into the bigger picture of all the pain and suffering in the world, or even in your life; all desire for objects becomes trivial in the big picture.

- Replace insecure thoughts (e.g., “I need these items to be happy, functional, or calm”) with secure ones (e.g., “I am a competent, capable adult and there are really few belongings that make a significant difference in my life.”).

- Undo your emotional attachment to belongings; your things really don’t represent you in any significant way, and certainly not as well as you yourself can. Use the “Pain vs. Pleasure” exercise to more realistically evaluate your belongings.

- Use your workbook to guide writing about the feelings created by giving things up. Use the “My Life Post-Hoarding” exercise to envision life without hoarding.

- Increase your self-care; few of us really take care of our bodies the way they should be.

- Issue your declaration of independence from the social, cultural, familial, or gender chains that lock you into counter-productive or harmful behaviors.

- Do a small amount of clearing every day; seeing steady progress will convince you of the value of small rewards.

© Gloria Valoris 2013 Many thanks to the members of the Hoarding Discussion Group who helped to shape and define these ideas