The Psychology of Collecting
Posted by Gail | Filed under Psychology
From time to time I ask what you’d like me to write about. That’s how the whole investment series came into being: I had so many requests, I gave in. I hadn’t done a lot on investing before because EVERYONE ELSE does investing.
Recently I had a request to do a piece on the psychology of collecting. I’ve been a collector myself: stamps when I was small, books, hippos, house-plants. The idea intrigued me… I love writing about new things and I hadn’t thought about this before, so I set to doing some research to see what’s what.
People have been collecting all sorts of things forEVER, from precious stones to baseball cards. There are even names for collectors: lepidopterists collect butterflies; philatelists collect stamps; arctophiles collect teddy bears. I once new a couple who topped their wet-bar with matchbooks from all the restaurants they had been to. Some people collect stuff that seems quite odd to other folks. A guy named Graham Barker has the world’s largest collection of navel fluff. And if you’re into moist towelettes, Michael Lewis is your man.
While most people collect the “normal” stuff like hockey cards or coins, people can make almost anything into a collection: empty perfume bottles, salt and pepper shakers, old postcards. I new a girl who never threw away a rubber band: she kept adding them to her ball. I know another who did the same with her tinfoil. When it got too big to handle, she’d start another one.
So why this compulsion to collect? And how far will we go to extend or complete a collection?
Some people like the hunt. When I collected hippos, half the fun was finding one I didn’t yet have that fit with the type of hippos I collected (whimsical hippos). Some psychologists suppose that people are trying to fill a void, create a sense of self. Some collectors get a real thrill out of arranging and rearranging their collections. And some folks get really excited when they come close to completing a collection.
Freud believed we collect to make up for our sense of loss over watching our poopies go bye-bye. Hey, Freud had an obsession with poop. And one does have to scratch one’s head when some people take “collecting” to the extreme we’ve seen on those “hoarder” TV shows.
Since collecting is often most associated with positive emotions – the pleasure of adding a new treasure, the excitement of seeking an addition to the collection – some people can take their collecting to an extreme, even putting themselves at financial risk (never mind all the dusting required) in order to get another pleasure jolt.
Some people collect to learn: they use their stamps, their coins, or whatever history pieces they are focused on to learn more about something they’ve very interested in: geography, flowers, a specific period of time. Some people collect to say (in a sing-song voice), “mine’s bigger than yours.” Some people collect because they’ve been convinced by smart marketers that their “collections” will be worth big money one day. Remember Beanie Babies? How about Precious Moments? And some folks collect because the very act brings order and predictability to their world. Their collections make them feel safe because no matter how out of control the rest of the world is, at home among their collection, they’re in charge.
Sometimes we outgrow our collections. Sometimes we carry our collections around with us long after we’ve stopped acquiring new piece because we invested so much time, effort and money in the collection. And sometimes we divest: we let go of the stuff because we realize that actually doesn’t mean what we thought it did. But sometimes out collections have such memories attached that we hold tight to them, using them to bring us a sense of continuity.
I started Alex on a collection musical boxes and snow globes when she was a babe. I’d give her a new one for each birthday and Christmas. The early ones broke quickly because I never admonished her for playing with them and, well, things break. But she still has quite a few of them. I was surprised when I went to visit her at university to see one of the musical snowglobes a friend of mine had given her on her desk. She wound it up for me. A little bit of home.