This project explores the psychological characteristics of individuals who engage in digital hoarding, and the risks these behaviours can pose to organisations.

Hoarding behaviours associated with the accumulation of physical objects is the subject of a newly-diagnosed psychiatric disorder. Studies in clinical groups and community samples have begun to clarify the demographic, social, and psychological characteristics of individuals who hoard physical items. Our research has shown for example that hoarders hold strong emotional attachments to their possessions at the expense of attachments to other people, and tend to imbue their objects with human-like emotional responses (called ‘anthropomorphism’).

Recently, focus has turned to the potential problems associated with digital hoarding – the accumulation of digital material such as emails, photographs, files and apps. Studies of email storage within individuals and organisations have shown that some individuals do not delete emails, and many store them in an unsecure manner. There are cyber security risks associated with such hoarding behaviour, as the stored material could be mined for social engineering attacks, or used by disgruntled employees who have at their disposal a repository of confidential or possibly embarrassing material that may date back several years. In short, hoarding can create cyber security vulnerabilities within a company and could potentially lead to the release of classified or commercially-sensitive data.

In a series of quantitative surveys, we will explore the psychological characteristics of individuals who engage in digital hoarding. A key aspect will be the initial development and validation of a digital hoarding questionnaire using a large sample from Amazon Turk. We will then explore the social, demographic and psychological characteristics of digital hoarders from within large organisations (local authorities, emergency services, universities) and compare their characteristics with those known to be associated with physical hoarders. In addition, we can explore how staff think about and relate to the digital information that they have access to, and how they decide on whether or not to save it or delete it. The findings will enable organisations to develop and refine their data storage and data protection policies, digital security policies, and preserve their commercial integrity.

Project details

January 2017 – December 2017
Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threads (CREST)
Project website
  • Nick Neave, Northumbria University (Principal Investigator)
  • Liz Sillence, Northumbria University(Co-Investigator)

NORTH Lab investigators

Pam Briggs

I hold a Chair in Applied Psychology at Northumbria University and am a Visiting Professor at Newcastle University. My work primarily addresses issues of identity, trust and security in new social media, seeking answers to three main questions: Why and when do we feel secure in disclosing sensitive identity information about ourselves? What makes us trust an electronic message? How and when do we seek to protect our privacy?

In the last five years, I’ve secured over £2m in research funding, have published over forty articles on human perceptions of trust, privacy and security in computer-mediated communication and have developed, with colleagues, a new model of health advice-seeking online. I’m one of the founder members of the UK's Research Institute in the Science of Cybersecurity, funded by GCHQ in association with RCUK's Global Uncertainty Programme and my most recent research awards address both usable and inclusive privacy and security.

My latest projects (see projects page) concern cybersecurity across the lifespan (cSALSA), the human side of cyber and cloud crime (CRITICAL) and attitudes and decision-making behaviours around cyberinsurance (CYBECO). I’m also a co-investigator on the Digital Economy Research Centre (DERC) where I’ve been exploring ways to democratise context-relevant data collection and analysis and explore the design of digital platforms for social action.

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Kerry McKellar

I started a full-time PhD at PaCT Lab in October 2014. I previously completed a BSc (hons) in Psychology in 2013 and an MRes in Psychology in 2014 at Northumbria University.

My research interests include teenagers’ knowledge and beliefs of sexual health intervention programs. Furthermore, my research interests include risky behaviours specifically using technology, such as cyber bullying and sexting behaviours.

My PhD is exploring teenagers’ beliefs, knowledge and attitudes towards sexual health. This will then inform a sexual health intervention program aimed at reducing the amount of unplanned pregnancies and STIs in the teenage population.

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