Digital Hoarding Behaviours: How can we measure and evaluate them?
By Emma Norris, on 7 May 2019
By Kerry McKellar – Northumbria University, UK
Digital hoarding has been defined as “…the accumulation of digital files to the point of loss of perspective, which eventually results in stress and disorganisation”. While physical hoarding has been extensively investigated, there has been recent speculation about the existence and potential problems related to digital hoarding. Clearly, unlike physical hoarding, there is no imposing impact on physical spaces, however individuals may still be negatively affected by excessive digital clutter. There can also be negative impacts for businesses if their employees have excessive amounts of data clutter, such as impacts on costs, data lifespan, productivity and knowledge management.
Designing a digital hoarding questionnaire:
The aim of our study was to develop and validate a new questionnaire that could identify digital hoarders and measure digital hoarding in the workplace. We wanted to gain an understanding of the scale of the problem and the potential consequences to both an organisation and the individual. We expected that digital hoarding would be predictive of workplace behaviours.
We conducted two studies in order to develop and validate our questionnaire.
424 UK participants in full or part-time employment completed the initial questionnaire online via Qualtrics. We developed the initial 12 statement questionnaire by adapting questions from the physical hoarding literature which focussed on the core facets of accumulation, clutter, difficulty discarding and distress (Frost & Gross, 1993; Steketee & Frost, 2003). We conducted a principal component analysis which resulted in two scales ‘Difficulty deleting’ (6 items) and ‘accumulating’ (4 items). The first factor, difficulty deleting, evokes feelings of loss or distress when data is deleted and relates to the more emotional aspects of hoarding. The second factor ‘accumulation’ suggests that the mass collection of digital files is simply perceived as the more practical and low-effort solution to the management of data.
The second questionnaire was created as a way to assess the extent of digital hoarding in the workplace, asking about digital files stored, deletion behaviours, and beliefs about the consequences of digital hoarding to the self and the organisation. These questions were driven from previous literature of particular importance were qualitative findings from Sweeten et al. (2018) whose ‘5 barriers to deletion’ are included in section 3 of our questionnaire.
Therefore, this pilot study resulted in two more robust questionnaires better suited to the assessment of digital hoarding attitudes and behaviours. The final two questionnaires were the Digital Hoarding Questionnaire (DBQ) designed as a psychometric assessment of digital hoarding traits and attitudes; and a Digital Behaviours at Work Questionnaire (DBWQ) which included individual and workplace demographics and four sections on workplace hoarding behaviours and attitudes that measured (1) accumulation and storage behaviours; (2) deletion behaviours; (3) rationale for keeping emails and (4) perceived consequences for self and company.
203 UK participants in full or part-time employment who used a computer as part of their job completed the final revised questionnaires. A random sample of 50 individuals were also asked to re-take the study again 6 weeks after first taking part so that we could establish the test-retest reliability of the scale.
We found significant correlations for the test re-test showing a good test consistency over 6 weeks. We also examined the differences between individuals who had data protection responsibilities (DPR) and those who don’t have DPR. We found those with DPR had higher amounts of read emails, unread emails, presentation files, photographs and total amounts of files. Those with DPR also scored higher in the two digital hoarding factors, difficulty deleting and accumulating. Interestingly, those with DPR and those who scored higher in the digital hoarding factors also perceived higher consequences to themselves and to their company if their files were accidently released.
Lastly, we examined the top five reasons why people don’t delete emails:
- They may come in useful in the future.
- They may contain information vital for their job.
- They may need ‘evidence’ that something has been done.
- They are worried they may accidently delete something important.
- They feel a sense of professional responsibility towards them.
The DHQ and the DBWQ were found to provide an accurate assessment of digital hoarding behaviours, showed good evidence of reliability and clearly distinguished between those with and without data protection responsibilities. The DBWQ could enable organisations to gain a quantitative understanding of the amount and type of files that employees are routinely keeping, and to explore subgroups in the organisation. For example, we found that employees with DPR retain significantly more information than employees without DPR. This is surprising as while it is expected they may have more data, there is no reason for them to retain it and with their specialist knowledge of data protection, we may expect them to actually delete more data.
There is a strong sense that people perceive these hoarding behaviours as harmless, fuelled in part by the fact that digital storage is cheap and search engines are fast, meaning individuals perceive benefits to storing increased amounts of digital data. However, employee hoarding behaviour is likely to become troublesome with the roll out of new privacy and data protection legislation that regulates the storage of personal data (e.g. GDPR in Europe). This could mean that both organisations and individuals could be unwittingly storing data illegally. However, we simply don’t yet understand the scale of the issue, including the kinds of material individuals hoard and the associated workplace risks. Further work is needed to fully understand workplace digital hoarding.
You can read the full paper in Computers in Human Behavior here.
- Do you think it is necessary to keep a high amount of digital files?
- Are there more benefits or disadvantages of keeping an increasing amount of digital files?
- Can we design out digital hoarding?
Dr Kerry McKellar is a Post Doctoral Researcher in PaCT lab at Northumbria University, working on projects associated with cybersecurity, health and online behaviours. @KerryMcKell
Professor Nick Neave is Director of the Hoarding Research Group at Northumbria University.
Dr Liz Sillence is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University. She is member of the Psychology and Communication Technologies Lab, and an eHealth researcher @beehivewife
Professor Pam Briggs is Chair in Applied Psychology at Northumbria University. She is founder member of the UK’s Research Institute in the Science of Cybersecurity (RISCS) @pamtiddlypom