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The Psychology of Collecting

Updated on September 24, 2014

The origins of collecting

As a society we seem to be fascinated with collecting things. Teapots, stamps, postcards, cars, stickers, dolls, even naval fluff! The items we take an interest in collecting are often eclectic and wonderfully diverse. For some it’s a hobby, others a career, but regardless of the motive it’s more popular than we can sometimes think. At present there are and estimated 60 million stamp collectors throughout the word. That’s almost the entire population of the UK who spend their time dedicated to the pursuit of collecting stamps. That doesn’t take into account all the coin, doll, genealogy, matchbox and teddy bear collectors across the globe.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon and the trend isn’t solely reserved for the modern world. The Egyptian Ptolemaic Dynasty (305-30BC) were some of the first collectors and assembled an impressive collection of books that were housed at the library of Alexandria. While it’s probably safe to say they didn’t extend their collection to postage stamps or vintage teapots, collecting items, whatever they may be, seems to be an intrinsic part of human behaviour.

Modern day collecting has its origins a little closer to home. An evolution from the popular “cabinets of curiosity” that were all the rage during the 17th and 18th century. The wealthy collected fossils, shells, books and art where the size of their private collection was an indication of their power, wealth and social status. Some of these initial collections became so large that they became of interest to the general public, ultimately growing to such a stature that they became the catalyst for some of London’s very first museums.

London's Natural History Museum
London's Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum was opened in 1881 thanks to one of these private collections; Sir Hans Sloane’s compendium of over 80,000 specimens from the natural world paved the way for Richard Owen to open of London’s most fashionable tourist attractions. Museums, so popular with many of us today, are simply an extension of these early private collections. If you’ve ever been to a museum, it could be argued that you have an interest in collecting.

So why is this? What are the reasons for wanting to collect things? Is it learnt behaviour passed down through ages, is it part of our evolutionary past, or do we simply love shiny things.

Toilet Trauma

Ahhh Freud. He never fails to amaze, confuse and befuddle. According the world’s best-known psychologist the desire to collect things stems from un-resolved childhood toilet trauma. For some, the trauma of going to the toilet and loosing our valuable “possessions” was so overwhelming that we developed a fixation to take back what was once ours. Collectors are simply trying to take back control of their items and belongings, finding security in ownership, never again to be lost or taken away by the porcelain thief……….an intriguing theory!

Investment

For some the art of collecting has nothing to do emotions of nostalgic reminiscence, but more to do with investment and financial security. In June 2014 the most expensive stamp ever sold went for a hefty £5.6m at Sotheby’s. The one-cent British Guiana Magenta postage stamp is the only one of its kind left and proved to be a very sensible investment. With the volatility of the stock market, stamp collecting and investing in rare stamps has been shown to be a more stable and ultimately lucrative asset.

The hunt

Hunting is an innate instinct born out of our evolutionary past. Our desire to hunt, find and capture is pre-conditioned into our psyches. With the wonderful advancement in tofu technology and the proliferation of the modern supermarket, much of this desire goes left unfulfilled. It’s for these reasons that many collectors find themselves absorbed in their collections. The search for the “missing piece” or the rare gem that no one else has, is a powerful attraction and provides an almost never-ending search. As with many things in life, the joy is the hunt itself, not the end goal.

Social camaraderie

While more popular that most people think, finding like-minded individuals who share a passion or an interest in collecting can be difficult, especially if your own particular interest is very niche. The advent of the Internet has made it much easier for collectors to talk, discuss and share information. Strong social bonds can be formed based around a mutual interest or passion. Just as bikers, film buffs and musicians find friendship through common ground; collectors can build entire social groups based around their love of collecting. Some collectors also refer to the social bonds formed with family members where grandparents hand down their years of hard work to the next generation. A lifetime of collecting to be continued by their children or grandchildren, helping to form strong family ties and an emotive link to their own unique past.

Survival

Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology and developed the concept of the collective unconscious. He argued and touted the influence of archetypes of behaviour, a universal way of thinking and behaving that was common among all of us. The need and desire to collect things was directly related to our survival instincts, we’re all pre-conditioned to collect and store food sources, nuts and berries etc…. His argument was that it was this desire that was the main driving force behind our need to collect. We’re all just filling our cheeks for the winter.

Time travel

Just as we take photo’s and keep a physical record of important moments in our lives, collecting can serve as a reminder of times gone by. Collecting as a hobby is more common among people who have lived during a war where the tangible, physical objects can invoke strong emotions. Reminding them of periods of our lives that should never be forgotten. One of the strongest senses associated with memory is surprisingly our sense of smell, sometimes all we need to jump in our metaphorical time-machine is a waft of nostalgia.

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