Psychology of collecting

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The psychology of collecting is an area of study that seeks to understand the motivating factors explaining why people devote time, money, and energy making and maintaining collections. There exist a variety of theories for why collecting behavior occurs, including consumerism, materialism, neurobiology and psychoanalytic theory. The psychology of collecting also offers insight into variance between similar behavior that can be recognised on a continuum between being beneficial as a hobby and also capable of being a mental disorder.[1] The large diversity of different types of collected objects and variance of collecting behaviors across these types has also been subject to research in psychology, marketing and game design.[2][3]

Collecting is known to be a common behavior, with one estimate suggests that 40% of United States households engage in some form of collecting behavior,[4] with another source suggesting a global estimate closer to 30% assuming low variance between countries.[5]

Motivations for collecting[edit]

Collections such as this one of locks showcase the diversity of what people collect.
Philately, the collecting of postage stamps, is a popular worldwide form of collecting.

Although collections often include physical objects, marketing research theorises that collection may be in pursuit of something less tangible such as an experience, idea or feeling.[4] This forms a foundation for applying theories of consumerism and materialism, which posits some intrinsic value separate from monetary value such as luxury, passion, spirituality, solidarity or nostalgia that motivates consumer behavior.[4][6] The social environment in which collecting occurs may also lead to competition over acquiring objects, and cooperation in the form of sharing knowledge about objects, which according to the theory motivates researching, cataloging, displaying and admiring collections.[4] Motives are not mutually exclusive, and different motives may combine or intersect for different collectors.[7] Since these motivations are not restricted to a particular stage of life, collecting is sometimes considered a lifelong pursuit which can never be fully completed.[8]

Virtual forms of collecting are diverse, and can vary from collectible objects like equipment, characters, vehicles or mounts, to less material possessions such as skins or achievements, or currencies and objects valued primarily for rarity, memorability, or market value. These virtual collections may have effects on game mechanics, or be acquired to reflect the personality of players through appearance.[2]

The scope of collecting behavior in academia is difficult to define due to its large scope and many functions. It can include physical and virtual objects, along with intangible objects such as collecting jokes or proverbs.[4] This difficulty is illustrated by the following quote:

At some point in the process the objects have to be deliberately viewed by their owner or potential owner as a collection, and this implies intentional selection, acquisition and disposal. It also means that some kind of specific value is set upon the group by its possessor, and with the recognition of value comes the giving of a part of self-identity. But collecting is too complex and too human an activity to be dealt with summarily by way of definitions.[9]

— Susan M. Pearce, University of Leicester

Comparison to hoarding[edit]

Collecting as a hobby can become hoarding or compulsive hoarding, differing in that covering a large amount of living area with possessions leads to significant distress or impairment.[10] Compulsive hoarding, also known as hoarding disorder, is a diagnosable mental disorder in the DSM-5 and is closely related to obsessive-compulsive disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.[1] Collecting, hoarding and compulsive hoarding are considered to lie on a continuum of the same underlying behaviors,[1] and assessment of these behaviors generally falls into two general categories of obsessive-compulsive behavior with hoarding subscales, and hoarding measures independent of obsessive-compulsive behavior.[10]

The crossover from collecting as a hobby, to hoarding as maladaptive behavior, has also been expressed in anecdotes. Bryan Petrulis, a former outfielder at St. Mary's University in Winona, Minnesota, and autograph collector, stated "It gets addictive, [...] just like gambling, drugs or sex. It's like putting a coin in a slot machine. It might not pay off this time, so you put another quarter in and keep doing it until you are tapped out or finally hit the jackpot."[11]


Neurobiological theories have suggested that collecting behaviors can in some cases be explained by brain damage or abnormalities.[12] This research posits levels of collecting behavior result from abnormalities in the medial prefrontal cortex, which also serves to explain the poor outcomes of psychosocial interventions.[12][a] The prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain responsible for regulating cognitive behaviors such as decision making, information processing, and organizing behavior. Evidence also exists to support this hypothesis for damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.[13] There are also cases where other brain damage distributed throughout the right and left hemispheres was believed to cause hoarding behavior.[14]

Psychoanalytic theory[edit]

Up until the 1990s, Freudian and psychoanalytic theories were historically used to describe why people collect.[15] Early theories began in the early- and mid-1900s based on both theories of psychosexual development and drive theory. Freud suggested the idea that collecting stems from toilet training behavior.[16] In the late 1990s, the popularity of relational models theories, such as self psychology led to the application of these theories to describe collecting as well, which pose the idea that collecting establishes a better sense of self. The psychoanalytic perspective generally identified five main motivations for collecting: for selfish purposes; for selfless purposes; as preservation, restoration, history, and a sense of continuity; as financial investment and as a form of addiction. Addictive collecting was termed hoarding and reflected a "dark side" of collecting behavior.[15]


  1. ^ Abstract says "mesial prefrontal cortex"; assumed typo in publication


  1. ^ a b c Nordsletten, Ashley E.; Mataix-Cols, David (April 2012). "Hoarding versus collecting: Where does pathology diverge from play?". Clinical Psychology Review. 32 (3): 165–176. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2011.12.003. PMID 22322013.
  2. ^ a b Toups, Zachary O.; Crenshaw, Nicole K.; Wehbe, Rina R.; Tondello, Gustavo F.; Nacke, Lennart E. (2016-10-15). "The Collecting Itself Feels Good". Proceedings of the 2016 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play. Austin, Texas: ACM. pp. 276–290. doi:10.1145/2967934.2968088. ISBN 978-1-4503-4456-2. S2CID 3167498.
  3. ^ Allahdini, Arash; Chitsaz, Shahrzad; Saeedi, Hamid (2017-07-28). "A Consideration on Factors of Collecting Buying Behavior". International Journal of Marketing Studies. 9 (4): 111. doi:10.5539/ijms.v9n4p111. ISSN 1918-7203.
  4. ^ a b c d e Ijams Spaid, Brian (2018-11-13). "Exploring consumer collecting behavior: a conceptual model and research agenda". Journal of Consumer Marketing. 35 (6): 653–662. doi:10.1108/jcm-05-2017-2224. ISSN 0736-3761. S2CID 239792246.
  5. ^ W., Belk, Russell (2001). Collecting in a consumer society. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-25848-0. OCLC 46909826.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Rykwert, Joseph (December 2001). "Why Collect?". History Today. 51 (12).
  7. ^ Mueller, Shirley M. (2019). Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play. Lucia|Marquand. ISBN 978-0-9996522-7-5.[page needed]
  8. ^ McKinley, Mark B. (1 January 2007). "The psychology of collecting". The National Psychologist. Archived from the original on 18 October 2020.
  9. ^ "Interpreting objects and collections". The Urge to Collect. Susan M. Pearce. London: Routledge. 1994. pp. 157–159. ISBN 978-0-203-42827-6. OCLC 191031504.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  10. ^ a b Frost, Randy O.; Hristova, Veselina (May 2011). "Assessment of hoarding". Journal of Clinical Psychology. 67 (5): 456–466. doi:10.1002/jclp.20790. PMID 21351103.
  11. ^ McCallum, Jack (14 November 2005). "Will You Please Sign This?". Sports Illustrated Vault.
  12. ^ a b Anderson, Steven W.; Damasio, Hanna; Damasio, Antonio R. (2005-01-01). "A neural basis for collecting behaviour in humans". Brain. 128 (1): 201–212. doi:10.1093/brain/awh329. ISSN 0006-8950. PMID 15548551.
  13. ^ Barrash, Joseph; Asp, Erik; Markon, Kristian; Manzel, Kenneth; Anderson, Steven W.; Tranel, Daniel (October 2011). "Dimensions of personality disturbance after focal brain damage: Investigation with the Iowa Scales of Personality Change". Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology. 33 (8): 833–852. doi:10.1080/13803395.2011.561300. ISSN 1380-3395. PMC 3140575. PMID 21500116.
  14. ^ Steketee, Gail; Frost, Randy O.; Kyrios, Michael (1 August 2003). "Cognitive Aspects of Compulsive Hoarding". Cognitive Therapy and Research. 27 (4): 463–479. doi:10.1023/A:1025428631552. S2CID 22786820.
  15. ^ a b Formanek, Ruth (1994). "Interpreting objects and collections". Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations. Routledge. pp. 339–347.
  16. ^ McKinley, Mark (2005). "The psychology of collecting" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 July 2010.

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