Where do I come from writing about the Psychology of Collecting? I don’t have a degree in behavioral science. (I took a Psychological Foundations of Education course to get my teaching credential a few years ago. I got an ‘A’, but frankly I thought it was all a bit silly.) The answer is simple. I have made a hobby of observing people’s hobbies. Talk to them – or rather – listen to them talk about a topic they love. (And I have to say, there are worse ways to learn about something. An interesting speech and a boring speech are often separated by little more than the speaker and their interest in that topic.)
Collecting could be thought of as a subset of a larger human behavior called, if only for convenience, hobbies. But I’m not sure this is true. I theorize that collectors and hobbyists are completely different things. Take the people from the model train as a test. I used to take my casework to training programs when they came to Northern California. Nice people, the ‘hobbyist’ model train, but they come in two different flavors. There are those who build tracks and small towns and mountains, etc. and then play with their trains. Then there are the collectors who are somehow forced to own a sample of every locomotive Lionel made in a given year. Or all the engines Lionel ever made. Or all locomotives, cars, tanks, vans, etc. of a certain scale / year / manufacturer. Often they don’t even open the package; they tell me it reduces the value. Both builders and collectors go to the same show and – I suppose – talk to each other – but they are completely different species.
There are some poor souls who are pathological in their collecting. It is not my word, ‘pathological’. Researchers use this word to describe harvesting to the point that it interferes with daily life. Their houses are packed – and I mean literally every square foot – packed from floor to ceiling until they crash into the floor below FULL of stuff. Usually these people have no interest in the things in their collection, but they get upset if someone tires of taking them away. There is some research that indicates how this could 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 accumulation problems before their illness, but who later began to fill their homes with things such as old newspapers, broken appliances, or trash boxes. The good doctor says:
All of these compulsive gatherers had suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in decision-making, information processing and the organization of behavior. People whose collecting behavior remained normal also suffered brain damage, but instead it was distributed throughout the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
Anderson posits that the drive to gather stems from the need to store supplies like food, a drive so basic that it originates in the subcortical and limbic portions of the brain. Humans need the prefrontal cortex, he says, to determine what “supplies” are worth stockpiling.
I need to make one last point before moving on to the merely insane and non-pathological foragers. All the reading I’ve done suggests that collecting, for whatever reason and to any degree, is poorly understood and there really isn’t much clear research out there. This brings me back to where I started: I can pretend to be an expert in the psychology of collecting because there is no one else who is better qualified than me.
NUT-CASE COLLECTORS (non-clinical):
Something less “traumatic” / “dramatic”? – and it’s pretty clear I’m into psychedelic quackery here – they’re merely obsessive-compulsive disorder collectors. There’s no detectable brain damage, just old OCD, or we could call it OCCD (Obsessive Compulsive Hoarding Disorder). But I wonder how many people who are truly committed to a certain topic (coin collecting, Denver Broncos, UFOs, conspiracy theories, whatever) have family and friends looking at them, shaking their heads, and muttering something? about OCD under your breaths. But before moving on to collectors, collectors with a capital C, coins, stamps, model railroad cars, collectors, etc., we could consider the collector in all of us. There is a lovely story written by Judith Katz-Schwartz: Remembering Grandma. Her grandmother was a refugee – very young – from tsarist Russia who collected … and I quote …
… the tops of the Bic pens neatly rolled up with rubber bands; hundreds of small snaps threaded into safety pins; at least a hundred glass jars, all gleaming; Eighty-seven Ace bandages neatly rolled up and attached.
I thought this was kind of funny, until the guy I share a woodworking shop with reminded me of the two big garbage bags that I have filled with carefully cleaned bottles of BBQ sauce. I love BBQ sauce and eat it in almost everything. Approximately one bottle a week. I have no idea what will come of them, but I KNOW the day will come when I am glad I have all these empty bottles of BBQ sauce.
Judith sums it up beautifully and with a kind and uncommon insight I think. In the aforementioned article, she closes with …
Some people charge to invest. Some collect for pleasure. Some people do it to learn about history. And some people “save things” because it helps fill a void, 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 protector against the destruction of all that you have loved. Grandma’s things made her feel safe. Although the outside world was a dangerous and constantly changing place, she could still sit safely in her apartment at night, “gathering my things.”
Then there was an episode of the TV sitcom Third Rock from the Sun. You may remember that Dick (John Lithgow) became obsessed with Fuzzy Buddies. I take “Fuzzy Buddies” as the producer’s way to avoid being sued by the people who make “Beanie Babies”. If one were to be perfectly honest about things, I suspect that most, if not all of us, saw a bit of ourselves in character.
There is another rather unique type of collecting: the one that dictators practice as they accumulate trinkets. Possible motives for collecting abound: compulsion, competition, exhibitionism, the desire for immortality, and the need for expert approval. According to Peter York, a British journalist who studied the decoration of dictators for his book Dictator Style, he acknowledges all of the above in his subjects. It’s basically the job of a dictator, he says, to take everything above everything else. For instance …
Sci-fi fantasy paintings featuring menacing dragons and scantily clad blondes.
Bavarian furniture from the 18th century. Munich antique dealers were ordered to keep an eye on it.
Kim jong ii
20,000 videos (Daffy Duck cartoons, Star Wars, Liz Taylor and Sean Connery films)
Several race cars and a bunch of old I Love Lucy rerun movie reels and Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Westerns with Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and John Wayne. Stalin also inherited the films of Joseph Goebbels.
He also notes that “some of these people,” he says, “were really very short.”
I don’t know what to call this set. There are some companies that sell things so well, and with such terrifying insight to their customers, and they do it with such deliberate marketing plans, carefully designed to exploit the peccadilloes of the poor collector, that these collectors are victims of something, themselves, or the bad guys. old marketing companies, I don’t know which one.
An example is Hallmark cards and their Christmas decorations. Note particularly the word “memory” and compare it to the idea of ”nostalgia.” (Any research on collecting by the multitude of doctors seems to depend on the word “nostalgia”). It is reasonable to collect things that speak of the past. This is neither more nor less than any historical museum does. It is also reasonable to collect things that trigger – hopefully – pleasant memories of our own past. (People my age remember the games Chutes and Ladders and Candy-Land. This is the kind of thing Daniel Arnett writes about in his Why We Collect article, posted elsewhere on this site.) But these things are authentic.
Hallmark has made millions – and I have nothing against making money – selling false nostalgia – and let’s not beat around the bush – to women. If you read the articles I have, it also seems clear that these women are not women with careers, education, children to raise, or – and we still don’t beat around the bush – much more to do.
And how far will Hallmark go for these poor women to buy the next ornament, or a series of 5 or 10 ornaments? Seminars, conventions, newsletters, autograph opportunities (the artists) and previews. (Advance Visits for Sealed Plastic Ornaments by the Millions ??? YES!)
Not just Hallmark either. Consider Franklin Mint, Hummel Figurines, Little English Cottage Pottery, Commemorative Plaques with Elvis painted on them. Not surprisingly these things are “nostalgic”. Every time a children’s movie comes out, McDonald’s or Burger King have little plastic toys / figurines / antenna balls of each character. Then children of a certain age should be fed Happy Meals until they have the full collection. (For kids, the “nostalgia” goes back to the movie they saw a week ago.)
My sister tells me about a fourth and final category of collector. This guy could also be seen as a victim, but I chose to call them accidental. She writes …
Someone mentions once that they like X and then years later all their friends give them X and then they really start hating X. Loren and Bonnie [my nieces] I once had a teacher that everyone in the whole school knew loved giraffes and collected them. One day I was talking to her and she told me that it all started years ago when she was explaining a project that children 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 woman has received every possible giraffe ever made. He told me he doesn’t even like damn animals.
The psychology of these poor souls is easy to understand. They are the “co-dependent” link (“accidental facilitators”?) Of a mild mass OCD. They know you mean well, but they’re too nice to say anything to get away with it. What are you going to do?
Judith has wealth or excellent advice to offer collectors. And some very nice things of their own for sale. Visit her Twin Brooks site and her book Secrets of a Collecting Diva. If I had your book before I wrote some of my articles, it would have saved me a lot of time researching and making things up.