Psychology of collecting

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The psychology of collecting is an area of study that seeks to understand the motivating factors why people devote great amounts of time, money, and energy making and maintaining collections.

Philately was one of the most popular forms of collecting around the world.

Concept of collecting[edit]

For people who collect, the value of their collections are not monetary but emotional. The collections allow people to relive their childhood, connect themselves to a period or to a time they feel strongly about. Their collections help them ease insecurity and anxiety about losing a part of themselves and to keep the past to continue to exist in the present.[1] Some collect for the thrill of the hunt. For these collectors, collecting is a quest, a lifelong pursuit which can never be completed.[2] Collecting may provide psychological security by filling a part of the self one feels is missing or is void of meaning.[3][self-published source?] When one collects, one experiments with arranging, organizing, and presenting a part of the world which may serve to provide a safety zone, a place of refuge where fears are calmed and insecurity is managed.[4][self-published source?] Motives are not mutually exclusive, rather, different motives combine for each collector for a multitude of reasons.[5]

What is collected[edit]

People can and do collect almost anything. Saint Louis collected saints’ relics and built temples for them. Henry Wellcome, a pharmacist, collected for society. He spent 40 years collecting over a million sharp objects that he felt represented the history of medical science. He later opened a museum, "The Museum of Medical Science", which operated during World War I.[1] Celebrity collectors include Demi Moore, who has a house filled exclusively with her doll collection. Sharon Stone collects cashmere sweaters.

Psychologists' perspectives[edit]

Collections such as this one of locks showcase the diversity of what people collect.

Psychologists have often taken a Freudian perspective when describing why people collect.[1] They highlight the controlling and impulsive dark side to collecting, the need for people to have "an object of desire." This desire, and hence the innate propensity to collect, begins at birth. The infant first desires the emotional and physical comfort of the nourishing breast, then the familiar baby blanket the child clings to for comfort and security. Stuffed animals, favorite toys are taken to bed and provide the emotional security needed to fall asleep. A sense of ownership and control is facilitated through possession of these items for the vulnerable child.[1] Freud took a more extreme position on the origins of collecting. Freud postulated that all collecting stems from unresolved toilet training conflict. He took the stance that the loss of bowel control was a traumatic experience, and the product from the bowels was disgusting and frightening to the child. Therefore, the collector is trying to gain back control of their bowels as well as their "possessions" which were long flushed down the toilet.[3] Where Freud linked object fixation to the anal-retentive stage in childhood, Muensterberger, in his paper "Unruly Passion" believes collecting to be a "need-driven compensatory behavior where every new object effectively gives the notion of fantasized omnipotence." Jung had his own theories about why people become collectors. He touted the influence of archetypes on behavior. These universal symbols are embedded in what he termed our collective unconscious. Using this logic, collecting and completing sets have as their archetypal antecedents the collecting of "nuts and berries" once needed for survival by our early ancestors.[3][6]

Negative Effects[edit]

Petrulis, a former outfielder at St. Mary's University in Winona, Minnesota who is an avid autograph collector, admits there is a dark side to collecting, providing some support for views that certain passions can be bad. "It gets addictive," says Petrulis, "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."[7]

Positive Effects[edit]

Despite the negative effects of collecting, collecting is still mostly associated with positive emotions.[4] There is the happiness from adding a new find to the collection, the excitement of the hunt, the social camaraderie when sharing their collection with other collectors.[8][self-published source?][9]


There are also times when collecting is not pleasant for anyone— and much harder to describe than simply dark.[opinion] There are those who have surpassed healthy collecting behavior and can be considered hoarders. Mere collecting can cross into the realm of hoarding when it also becomes pathological. Hoarding is pathological nature can be attributed to its interference with living a normal life.[10] The differences between collecting and hoarding are apparent: Items in a collection are neatly organized, maintained, and presented or manipulated with ease. If a collector of 1000+ trains wishes to find a particular specimen from their collection, they can find it easily. Collections are often catalogued, sorted, and objectively maintained like books in a library. Hoarding behavior is the opposite. Items with no value or clear utility are piled in stacks with neither order nor reason. Steven W. Anderson, a neurologist specializing in hoarding behavior, posits that the need to collect stems from the basic drive to collect basic supplies such as food. This drive originates in the subcortical and limbic portions of the brain. According to Anderson, people need their prefrontal cortex to determine what supplies are worth saving (or hoarding). Anderson has found that many compulsive hoarders with brain injuries have suffered damage to a region of their brain responsible for the regulation of cognitive behaviors such as decision making, information processing, and organizing behavior— the prefrontal cortex. Those with brain injuries who did not display hoarding behavior possessed no damage to their frontal cortex, but showed damage distributed throughout the right and left hemispheres of their brain.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d Rykwert, Joseph (December 2001). "Why Collect?". History Today. 51 (12).
  2. ^ McKinley, Mark B. (1 January 2007). "The psychology of collecting". The National Psychologist.
  3. ^ a b c McKinley, Mark (2005). "The psychology of collecting" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 July 2010.
  4. ^ a b Katz-Schwartz, Judith (5 April 1999). "Remembering Grandma".
  5. ^ Mueller, Shirley M. (2019). Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play. Lucia|Marquand. ISBN 978-0-9996522-7-5.[page needed]
  6. ^ Phelps, Marianne (1994). Catechism of the Catholic Church. Washington, DC 20017-1194: United States Catholic Conference. pp. 436–437. ISBN 978-1-55586-511-5.CS1 maint: location (link)
  7. ^ McCallum, Jack (14 November 2005). "Will You Please Sign This?". Sports Illustrated Vault.
  8. ^ Oxlade-Vaz, Gail (14 January 2011). "Making money make sense". Archived from the original on 16 January 2011.
  9. ^ Mueller, Shirley Maloney (2009). "The Neuropsychology of the Collector". Collectible Investments for the High Net Worth Investor. pp. 31–51. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-374522-4.00002-0. ISBN 978-0-12-374522-4.
  10. ^ 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. ^ 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.

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