On #CleanYourVirtualDesktopDay, Dr. Nick Neave tells us about his research on Digital Hoarding. We learn more about how humans anthropomorphise their possessions and why we have such a hard time throwing things away.
Nick Neave is a Professor in psychology and the lead of our Hoarding Research Group. Hes also the Faculty Director of Ethics and teaches a range of modules in the psychology, including our very popular Parapsychology module!
How long have you worked at Northumbria?
I have been at Northumbria for 25 years.
What got you interested in psychology?
I became interested at college by taking it as an A/O level, I chose this subject as I did not know what it was and it sounded interesting.
What was your PhD/Masters about?
My PhD was on the Neuroanatomical basis of spatial working memory.
What are your main research areas?
My main research areas are not hoarding and collecting behaviours (especially digital hoarding), conspiracy theory belief, and the home advantage in football.
What advice do you have for students?
Do not be obsessed by career pathways, take courses you are actually interested in
What would you have liked to do if you had not become a psychologist?
I started out as a primary school teacher and so would most likely still be doing that!
Dr Lynn McInnes is a Director of Education in the Department of Psychology. Part of this role is assuring the quality of the degree programmes we offer. This covers quality of assessments, modules, programmes and working with other staff on the strategic plans for the department regarding teaching and learning.
Tell us abour your career history
In September of 2021 I will have been at Northumbria University for 24 years. I achieved my undergraduate degree from Newcastle University and my PhD from Manchester University. After my PhD I was able to secure research posts for a few years working on a longitudinal study of ageing at Manchester and Newcastle Universities before joining Northumbria University as a Senior Lecturer and then becoming an Associate Professor.
What got you into psychology?
I took an eclectic mix of A-levels as I was not sure what I wanted to do when the time came to make A-level choices, so I tried to keep my options open. I had always had an interest in medicine but the thought of another 5 years of studying was off-putting so when I heard about a three-year degree in psychology it appealed as it offered me a new way to study people and behaviour. My degree and PhD ended up taking six years to complete.
What was the topic of your PhD?
The title of my PhD was “The efficiency of age and intelligence as predictors of spatial memory”. I was supervised by the wonderful Professor Patrick Rabbitt who introduced me to the world of research, the highs and lows of writing papers and research grants, attending conferences around the world and meeting experts about cognitive ageing.
What are your main research areas now?
I have continued studying ageing by looking at what aspects of cognitive functioning change with age. This has developed into studying ageing and health, well being and mobility. Most recently I have worked with colleagues in the department studying hoarding behaviour, especially hoarding exhibited by older adults.
Tell us about one psychology book that you would recommend?
My undergraduate project was about autobiographical memory. I asked people about their first memories and examined how these were elated to age and intelligence. A book that inspired me at the time was Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts by Ulric Neisser and Ira Hyman and I still would class it among my favourite psychology books.
What piece of advice would you give to students?
Make the most of whatever opportunities come your way. Put effort into everything you do and you will reap the rewards.
Try to remember that your degree is not just about the marks you achieve, but also enjoying the whole learning and social experience.
What would you have liked to do if you had not followed your career in psychology?
I would have loved to be a travel agent, an air hostess or an editor of a travel magazine. I love travelling and taking photographs so a job that allowed me to do those activities would have been perfect.
What do you do outside of work?
As I noted above, I love travelling and taking photographs. I enjoy creating albums of photos and can be relied upon to be able to find holiday photos of years ago, long before social media existed, to have a laugh about them with friends and family.
I also enjoy reading; I am currently enjoying a series of murder mysteries set in the North East of England by L J Ross. I also love working in my garden and hiking in the Lake District.
I have a 20-year-old son at university, and he and his friends are giving me great insights into how the student brain works.
How many emails are in your inbox? If the answer is thousands, or if you often struggle to find a file on your computer among its cluttered hard drive, then you might be classed as a digital hoarder.
In the physical world, hoarding disorder has been recognised as a distinct psychiatric condition among people who accumulate excessive amounts of objects to the point that it prevents them living a normal life. Now, research has begun to recognise that hoarding can be a problem in the digital world, too.
A case study published in the British Medical Journal in 2015 described a 47-year-old man who, as well as hoarding physical objects, took around 1,000 digital photographs every day. He would then spend many hours editing, categorising, and copying the pictures onto various external hard drives. He was autistic, and may have been a collector rather than a hoarder — but his digital OCD tendencies caused him much distress and anxiety.
The authors of this research paper defined digital hoarding as “the accumulation of digital files to the point of loss of perspective which eventually results in stress and disorganisation”. By surveying hundreds of people, my colleagues and I found that digital hoarding is common in the workplace. In a follow-up study, in which we interviewed employees in two large organisations who exhibited lots of digital hoarding behaviours, we identified four types of digital hoarder.
“Collectors” are organised, systematic and in control of their data. “Accidental hoarders” are disorganised, don’t know what they have, and don’t have control over it. The “hoarder by instruction” keeps data on behalf of their company (even when they could delete much of it). Finally, “anxious hoarders” have strong emotional ties to their data — and are worried about deleting it.
Although digital hoarding doesn’t interfere with personal living space, it can clearly have a negative impact upon daily life. Research also suggests digital hoarding poses a serious problem to businesses and other organisations, and even has a negative impact on the environment.
To assess the extent of digital hoarding, we initially surveyed more than 400 people, many of whom admitted to hoarding behaviour. Some people reported that they kept many thousands of emails in inboxes and archived folders and never deleted their messages. This was especially true of work emails, which were seen as potentially useful as evidence of work undertaken, a reminder of outstanding tasks, or were simply kept “just in case”.
Interestingly, when asked to consider the potentially damaging consequences of not deleting digital information – such as the cybersecurity threat to confidential business information – people were clearly aware of the risks. Yet the respondents still showed a great reluctance to hit the delete button.
At first glance, digital hoarding may not appear much of a problem — especially if digital hoarders work for large organisations. Storage is cheap and effectively limitless thanks to internet “cloud” storage systems. But digital hoarding may still lead to negative consequences.
First, storing thousands of files or emails is inefficient. Wasting large amounts of time looking for the right file can reduce productivity. Second, the more data is kept, the greater the risk that a cyberattack could lead to the loss or theft of information covered by data protection legislation. In the EU, new GDPR rules mean companies that lose customer data to hacking could be hit with hefty fines.
The final consequence of digital hoarding — in the home or at work — is an environmental one. Hoarded data has to be stored somewhere. The reluctance to have a digital clear-out can contribute to the development of increasingly large servers that use considerable amounts of energy to cool and maintain them.
How to tackle digital hoarding
Research has shown that physical hoarders can develop strategies to reduce their accumulation behaviours. While people can be helped to stop accumulating, they are more resistant when it comes to actually getting rid of their cherished possessions — perhaps because they “anthropomorphise” them, treating inanimate objects as if they had thoughts and feelings.
We don’t yet know enough about digital hoarding to see whether similar difficulties apply, or whether existing coping strategies will work in the digital world, too. But we have found that asking people how many files they think they have often surprises and alarms them, forcing them to reflect on their digital accumulation and storing behaviours.
As hoarding is often associated with anxiety and insecurity, addressing the source of these negative emotions may alleviate hoarding behaviours. Workplaces can do more here, by reducing non-essential email traffic, making it very clear what information should be retained or discarded, and by delivering training on workplace data responsibilities.
In doing so, companies can reduce the anxiety and insecurity related to getting rid of obsolete or unnecessary information, helping workers to avoid the compulsion to obsessively save and store the bulk of their digital data.