The Psychology of Collecting

Where do I get off writing about the Psychology of Collecting? I have no degree in any of the behavioral sciences. (Took a Psychological Foundations of Education to get my teaching credential some years ago. Got an ‘A’, but frankly, I thought it was all a bit silly.) The answer is simple. I’ve made a hobby of observing people’s hobbies. Talking to them -or more accurately- listening to them talk about a subject they love. (And I have to say that there are worse ways to learning about something. An interesting discourse and a dull discourse are often separated by little more then the discourser and his or her interest in that subject.)

Collecting might be thought of as a subset of a larger human behavior named -if only for the sake of convenience – hobbies. But I’m not sure this is true. I theorize that collectors and hobbyists are entirely different things. Take model train people as evidence. I used to take my casework to train shows when they came to northern California. Nice people the model train ‘hobbyists’, but they come in two distinct flavors. There are those who build tracks and little cities and mountains etc. and then play with their trains.   Then there are collectors who are somehow compelled to own a sample of every locomotive the Lionel made in a given year. Or all the locomotives Lionel ever made. Or all the locomotives, cars, tankers, cabooses, etc of a given scale / year / manufacturer. Often they don’t even open the package -reduces the value, I’m told. Both the builders and the collectors go to the same show and -I suppose- talk to each other -but they are completely distinct species.


There are some poor souls who are pathological in their collecting. Not my word, ‘pathological’. The research folks use this word to describe collecting to the point that it interferes with daily life. Their houses are filled -and I mean literally every-square-foot- floor-to-ceiling-filled- until-it-crashes-through-the-floor-below FILLED with stuff. These people usually have no interest in the stuff in their collection, but pitch a fit if someone tires to take any of it away. There is some research indicating how this might be explained.   Steven W. Anderson, a neurologist, and his colleagues at the University of Iowa studied 63 people with brain damage from stroke, surgery or encephalitis who had no previous problems with hoarding before their illness, but afterward, began filling their houses with such things as old newspapers, broken appliances or boxes of junk. The good Doctor says:

These compulsive collectors had all suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in decision making, information processing and behavioral organization. The people whose collecting behavior remained normal also had brain damage, but it was instead distributed throughout the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

Anderson posits that the urge to collect derives from the need to store supplies such as food–a drive so basic it originates in the subcortical and limbic portions of the brain. Humans need the prefrontal cortex, he says, to determine what “supplies” are worth hoarding.

I need to make one last point before moving on to the merely nutty-non-pathological-collectors. All the reading I’ve done suggests that collecting for -what-ever reason and to what-ever degree- is little understood and there is really not all much clear research out there. This takes me back to my starting point -I get to pretend to be an expert on the psychology of collecting because t’aint no one else out there who is any better qualified then I am.

NUT-CASE (non-clinical) COLLECTORS:

Somewhat less ‘traumatic’ / ‘dramatic’? – and it’s pretty clear I’m on thin-ice psycho-babble here – are the merely obsessive compulsive disorder collectors. No detectable brain damage – just good old OCD – or we might call it OCCD, (Obsessive Compulsive Collecting Disorder). But I wonder how many people who are truly committed to a given subject, (coin collecting, the Denver Broncos, UFO’s, conspiracy theories, you name it) have family and friends who look at them, shake their heads and mutter something about OCD under their breaths. But before we get on to collectors -Collectors with a capital C, coins, stamps, model railroad car Collectors, etc., we might consider the collector in all of us. There is a delightful story written by Judith Katz-Schwartz – Remembering Grandma. Her grandma was a refugee -as a very young girl- from Tsarist Russia who collected…. and I quote…

…the tops of Bic pens neatly wound with rubber bands; hundreds of tiny garment snaps threaded onto safety pins; at least one hundred glass jars, all sparkling clean; eighty-seven neatly rolled and clamped Ace bandages.

I thought this was a little funny, till the chap with whom I share a wood shop reminded me about the two big garbage bags I have filled with carefully cleaned BBQ sauce bottles. I love BBQ sauce and eat it on almost everything.   About a bottle a week. No idea what will ever come of them, but I KNOW the day will come when I’m dang glad I have all these empty BBQ sauce bottles.

Judith sums it up beautifully and with kind & rare insight, I think. In the above mentioned article, she closes with….

Some people collect for investment. Some collect for pleasure. Some folks do it to learn about history. And some people “save things” because it helps them to fill a gaping hole, calm fears, erase insecurity. For them, collecting provides order in their lives and a bulwark against the chaos and terror of an uncertain world. It serves as a protectant against the destruction of everything they’ve ever loved. Grandma’s things made her feel safe. Though the world outside was a dangerous and continually changing place, she could still sit safely in her apartment at night, “putting together my things”.

Then there was an episode from the TV sit-com Third Rock from the Sun. You might remember that Dick -(John Lithgow) became obsessed with Fuzzy Buddies. I take “Fuzzy Buddies” to be the producer’s way to avoid being sued by the folks that make “Beanie Babies.”   If one were to be perfectly honest about things, I suspect most – if not all of us – saw a little of ourselves in the character.  

There is another quite unique kind of nut-case collecting -that practiced by dictators as they accumulate bric-a-brac. Possible motives for collecting abound: compulsion, competition, exhibitionism, desire for immortality and the need for experts’ approval. According to Peter York, a British journalist who studied dictators’ decor for his book Dictator Style, recognizes all of the above in his subjects. It’s basically a dictator’s job, he says, to take everything over-the-top. For example…

Saddam Hussein  

Sci-fi fantasy paintings featuring menacing dragons and barely-clad blondes.

Adolf Hitler    

Bavarian 18th century furniture. Munich antique dealers were ordered to keep an eye out for him.

Kim Jong II

20,000 videos (Daffy Duck cartoons, Star Wars, Liz Taylor and Sean Connery flicks)

Idi Amin

Several racing cars and loads of old film reels of I Love Lucy reruns and Tom and Jerry cartoons

Joseph Stalin   

Westerns with Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and John Wayne. Stalin also inherited Joseph Goebbels’s films.

He also points out that “Some of these people,” he says, “were really very short.”


Don’t know what else to call this set. There are a few companies that sell stuff so well -and with such frightening insight to their customers, and do so with such deliberate marketing plans carefully designed to exploit the poor collector’s peccadilloes, that these collectors are victims of something -themselves – or the mean old marketing companies, don’t know which.

Case in point is Hallmark Cards and their Christmas Keepsake Ornaments. Note particularly the word “keepsake” and compare it to the idea of “nostalgia”. (Any research into collecting by the PhD crowd seems to hang on the word “nostalgia.”) It is reasonable to collect things that speak from the past. This is no more nor less then any historic museum does. It is also reasonable to collect things that trigger -let us hope- pleasant memories of our own past. (People of my age remember Chutes and Ladders and Candy-Land games. This it the sort of thing Daniel Arnett writes about in her article Why We Collect, published elsewhere on this site.) But these things are authentic. 

Hallmark has made millions -and I have nothing against making money- selling fake nostalgia -and let us not mince words here- to women. If you were to read the articles I have, it also seems clear that these women are not women with careers, educations, children to raise, or -and we are still not mincing words here- much else to do.

And what lengths will Hallmark goes to get these poor women to buy the next ornament -or series of 5 or 10 ornaments? Seminars, conventions, news letters, autograph opportunities (the artists), and advance viewings. (Advance viewings for plastic ornaments stamped out in by the millions??? YEP!)

Not just Hallmark either. Consider Franklin Mint, Hummel Figurines, little ceramics of English cottages, memorial plates with Elvis painted thereon. Not for nothing are these things ‘nostalgic’. When ever a kid’s movie comes out either McDonald’s or Burger King has little plastic toys / figurines / antenna balls of each character. Then kids of a certain age must be fed Happy Meals until they have the entire collection. (For kids “nostalgia” stretches all the way back to the movie they saw a whole week ago.)


My sister tells me of a fourth and final category of collector.  This sort might well be viewed as a victim as well, but I chose to call them accidental. She writes… 

Someone mentions once that they like X and then for years later all their friends give them is X and then they really start to hate X. Loren and Bonnie [my nieces] once had a teacher that everyone in the whole school knew loved giraffes and collected them. I was talking to her one day and she said it all started years ago when she was explaining a project the kids had to do to tell about themselves. She used herself as an example and said out of the blue that she liked giraffes. Now this poor women has received every possible giraffe thing ever made. She told me that she doesn’t even like the damn animals.

The psychology of these poor souls is easy to understand. They are the ‘co-dependent,’ (‘accidental enablers’?) nexus of a mild mass-OCD. They know it to be well meant but they are too kind to say anything to get themselves out if it. What are you gonna do?

Judith has a wealth or excellent advice to offer collectors. And some very nice stuff of her own for sale. Check out her site Twin Brooks and her book Secrets of a Collecting Diva. If I had her book before I wrote some of my articles it would have saved me a lot of time researching and making-up stuff. 

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