Whether it be comics, vinyl records, coins, or tickets to a ballgame, collecting is a common human interest and we all do it in one way or another. While the rate at which we collect our treasured objects can vary widely, we’ve all experienced the pride that comes with adding an item to our collection or setting one up for display.
I’m certainly accustomed to the pleasure that comes with collecting. From collecting comic books with my dad as a child, to my teen years spent trying to find every retro video game console I could get my hands on, to my twenties where I now have a vinyl record obsession, I’ve always felt the call to collect something.
My most recent collecting habits have gotten me into some slight financial trouble here and there. I woke up one morning to find that my bank account had plummeted from the hundreds to a mere $50 after one especially whirlwind online ordering experience. Worst of all, I recognized that I’d spent too much money on vinyl records this time around but still felt the compulsion to buy more. Immediately. As soon as I possibly could.
After talking with my girlfriend about how I just felt like I couldn’t stop buying vinyl records, she had some interesting insight on my situation. According to her, she’d noticed that I always felt like I needed to be collecting something and that my buying habits tended to be at their most extreme when I first started out.
She reminded me that I had only bought my record player about a month beforehand and that I was likely in the throes of this “compulsion to build a collection” period. I realized she was right and this got me thinking more about the psychology behind collecting. Why do we do it? Why does it make us feel so good? Where’s the line between hoarding and hobby? Why do we feel a compulsion to always be searching for that next great find?
Why Do We Collect?
So why do we throw ourselves into the hobby of collecting? On a psychological level, what does collecting do for us? I decided to do my own research.
As Shirley Mueller, MD says in her article, The Psychology of Collecting, collectors collect because we’re driven by the desire to experience pleasure. According to Dr. Mueller, there are different psychological reinforcers that feed into the brain’s pleasure center when we collect and this reinforcement drives the desire to collect again and again. These psychological reinforcers act as motivators and are different for each collector. Dr. Mueller goes on to say that the variations of these psychological reinforcers are so diverse that they can only be detailed according to the most common ones. Let’s take a look at those to further explore what drives collectors to collect.
One of the most common psychological reinforcers for why we collect is the pride we feel from acquiring new items. Dr. Mueller states that this particular psychological reinforcer can be further heightened at the moment that we gather our newfound items into a group for the very first time.
I’ve definitely experienced this myself. One of my favorite things to do after my bi-weekly trip to my local record store is to sprawl my finds out on my living room floor as a group. I’ll usually take pictures for social media. The sense of pride I experience seeing all of them situated side by side is extreme and when my pictures receive likes on Instagram, this feeling is even further heightened.
If you’re a collector yourself, it is likely that you’re very familiar with this feeling as well. Whether it be a comic book collection that you carefully place into sleeves to display on a shelf or a vintage toy car collection that you enjoy showing off to your nieces and nephews, the high we feel when showing off our collection can be intense.
As Dr. Mueller puts it, the psychological reinforcer of pride is a huge component that goes into our drive to expand our collections. As collectors, we always want more, we always want that latest release or that rare variation. We want to set ourselves apart from other collectors and feel that sense of pride that comes with a successful search.
Next, Dr. Mueller states that finding a rare item at a modest price point is yet another psychological reinforcer that drives us to collect. We all love a good deal but this is even more important to collectors. As collectors, we’re always trying to find that next item to add to our collection at a good price point. After all, we put a lot of money into our hobbies and if we can secure that rare item we’ve been looking for at a good price, we tend to feel self-important and cunning.
I tend to spend my weekends at local thrift shops that sell vinyl records. This is the best place to find a good deal on expensive vintage records as the shop owners tend to be unaware of just how expensive certain vinyl records can be. I’ve found a first pressing of multiple records from the Beatles, one of my favorite bands, more times than I can count. While these records still tend to be priced up from the rest of a thrift store’s inventory, they’re still an absolute bargain. This gives me that psychological reinforcement that Dr. Mueller discusses in The Psychology of Collecting and is a very good reason for why I keep coming back for more.
The Thrill of the Chase
Ah, the thrill of the chase. I probably don’t even have to explain this one but we’ll discuss it regardless as it is one of the largest reasons behind the drive to collect. Those that collect motivated by the thrill of the chase are less concerned with the price of the object and more with the value of the object. This value may be monetary or sentimental, each of which are powerful driving factors.
There are certain vinyl records that I have on my wishlist simply because they are rare. I may not even be a big fan of the music itself! There are other vinyl records that I’m searching for because of their personal value to me. One such example is Neil Diamond’s 1979 release of Forever in Blue Jeans. My parents played this album on loop almost continuously during my earliest years and to add it to my collection would be something really special. So special, in fact, that each of my trips to the record store include a search for this record specifically. No luck yet, but again, that’s the thrill of the chase!
The Fine Line Between Collecting and Hoarding
Now that we’ve talked about the psychology behind why we collect, let’s talk about the fine line between collecting and hoarding and how our motivations result in one or the other.
For the answer to this question, I read an article entitled The Psychology of Collecting by Mark B. McKinley, Ed.D. In this piece, McKinley describes how Sigmund Freud didn’t see the drive to collect as having any dependence on the motivating psychological reinforcers that Dr. Mueller highlights in her own article. McKinley states, rather, that Freud saw the drive to collect as collecting being driven by ties dating “back to the time of toilet training, of course”.
Interestingly, Freud saw the act of collecting as being motivated by “the loss of control” that came along with watching what when down the toilet disappear as some type of a traumatic experience. As McKinley puts it, Freud “may have overstated the issue” but this provides the perfect context for us to transition into the darker side of collecting: hoarding.
The Difference Between Collecting and Hoarding
Hoarding is defined as, in a psychological sense, “the compulsion to continually accumulate a variety of items that are often considered useless or worthless by others accompanied by an inability to discard the items without great distress” by the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Interestingly, if we look at the definition presented outside of psychological grounds, Merriam-Webster defines hoarding as “the practice of collecting or accumulating something (such as money or food)”. So what is the difference between the psychological motivators that drive us to collect healthily and collect unhealthily?
Going back to McKinley’s article, he states that some theorists suggest that hoarding behavior is a more extreme variation of compulsive buying. Interestingly, compulsive buying is a symptom closely related to a number of psychological disorders including obsessive compulsive disorder, major depression, and, most notably, compulsive hoarding. Does this mean then that the fine line between collecting and hoarding is a certain sense of something lacking in one’s life and the need to fill it with as much of something that makes us feel good as possible?
I believe that the moment in which collecting transitions into a more abnormal hoarding habit is related to our psychological state. While those with a hobby for collecting may be driven by some of the same motivating factors as those who hoard, I believe that there are key differences. Someone who collects toy cars as a hobby may be using their collecting habits to cope with something lacking in their lives but someone with an extreme hoarding habit may do so as an expression of lack of control over their lives completely. It may be a fine line and that is, perhaps, why collecting habits should be kept under control and monitored.
A Love For Collecting
While collecting can take an unhealthy, dark turn, I believe it brings something overwhelmingly positive to the lives of collecting. When I look at my meager collection of vinyl records, comic books gifted to me by my father, or collection of retro video game consoles, I get a sense of joy. It reminds me of the times in my life when I got those items, how it felt to find something so special.
I believe that this is why collecting is an important part of the human experience. We all do it at one time or another and it brings us joy, pride, and a sense of purpose. For that reason, I’m glad to be a collector. Although my habits may get out of control at one point or another, my collections make me happy. We could all use a bit more happiness in our lives if you ask me.