Why We Collect

January 22, 2016 by  
Filed under New, Spotlight

Why We Collect
Have you ever stopped to wonder why we collect things? What switch is flipped in our head that pushes that desire? Drives us onward to possess something at any cost? Or to make us search out a particular niche or specific item?

Is there a root psychology behind that urge?

In the course of a normal day the cycle of search and purchase replays over and over. Practical things like the necessities or services that go hand in hand with our daily routine. Like groceries or fuel for our vehicles. This is simply our hunting gathering instinct at work.

The urge to hunt and gather is actually one of our most basic survival systems. It’s a long developed primitive instinct. For our ancestors this could’ve determined the difference between life and death in an extreme situation, such as a harsh winter. So part of ‘why we collect’, could actually be hardwired into us.

We’re all familiar with the gathering habits of an animal packing away food for the winter or perhaps to feed a growing brood. Think of the rat or maybe the crow.

Many animal species have been classified as collectors …close to 70 around the planet.

That would account for the necessities of life but what about everything else?

You know …the impractical, frivolous or even ridiculous items. That achilles heel that every collector seems to have. I know … I’ve had one or two in my life. For me, the focus of my collections changed as my interests changed.

That would account for my losing track of items I collected 15 or 20 years ago. A fact I’m reminded of each time I venture deep into one of my storage units. On any such housekeeping day I would find cartons containing dozens of a particular collectible, years later. That happened again recently as I opened some of my older boxes.

There were die cast cars I had collected almost 20 years earlier. It was a small collection of around 30 models, still-in-box, 1/18 scale quality die cast vehicles. It was also a bonus to discover I had originally collected well. That is to say these models were no longer available. At least not at that level of quality.

Their production quality was quite high compared to what I would have to pay today. For example quality paint finishes and soft rubber tyres on chromed wire rims.

Which may not mean much in the context of this article. But the differences to me were quite surprising as I usually handle a lot of this stuff.

And I say collected well but what I consider my good fortune was probably more so a reflection of the better manufacturing standards of that time period. And not some particular insight I had when originally buying. The bottom line? My collection sold very quickly.

I lost track of these items once they were in storage. 

If I had catalogued my collection back then that probably would never have happened. I’ll be addressing the topic of cataloging in a future article. It’s an absolute necessity nowadays.

As for the single niche collections out there, I know of other collectors that will pursue a specific item their whole life. So how do we begin to address why we collect anything at all?

“There appears to be some general consensus on why we collect”.

If you ask around you’ll probably hear things like…

Learning – “Collecting butterflies teaches me about butterflies.”

NOTE: As a kid I had a close friend, one of my best friends actually. He was fascinated with rocks. He collected them everywhere. Now as an adult he studies rock compositions within glacial ice movements. Maybe not a typical example but it shows there can be a range of differences in why we collect.

Social Bonding – “Collecting butterflies brings me closer to my peer group of butterfly collectors.”

I’m reminded of the days long before the internet. Back in the 60s, as a child I remember my mother entertaining other neighbourhood women for lunch or tea. Sometimes we would go to the neighbour’s house as well. And in each home you could always notice small collections of items in a curio cabinet.

Or sometimes they would line the kitchen window over a sink. The collections were highly visible and identifiable. The one item I remember in particular was the tiny ceramic figurines available in each box of Lipton tea. It seemed like whatever house we visited there they were …displayed on the window ledge.

It became almost ritualistic in it’s bonding.

It made sense actually. It was a safe common collectible item. It made everyone the ‘same’. Or at least made you similar to your neighbour. Plus they were included free in each box.

I doubt Lipton’s marketing had this bonding effect in mind but if they did then they are geniuses.

The women would admire each other’s tiny rare collection poised over the kitchen sink as they sipped tea. The tea was a social lubricant between neighbours. The window sill collection gave them something to talk about as they sipped away.

Could the answer to why we collect be distilled down further?

Could it be that collecting was something so appealing because it brought in those that were on the social fringe? Regardless of looks or status.

To be part of a group that collected a certain item brought you casually into that fold. You were part of a clique.

Look no further than fans of Star Trek.

It’s almost commonplace now to hear something negative about collectors of Star Trek memorabilia. Being part of the larger group keeps them insulated.

The buzz – “It’s simply the thrill of the hunt”.

Researchers have actually reported that collecting, or finding something new for your collection, releases a shot of dopamine into our brains. That means we could be getting a buzz from this activity. Sounds reasonable. It’s the reason we do anything really.

But with collecting the dopamine effects begin to have a lesser influence each time we discover something new. This leads us to shore up that buzz. We seek out our chosen niche target over and over again. The items get more rare and the collection gets bigger. You can see this with some of the huge collections out there.

They could be responding to a dopamine hit.

There is also the case of brain injury. Researchers have noted patterns between those individuals with abnormal collecting behaviours and those that have suffered brain damage. Particularly brain damage that has occurred on the right side of the frontal lobe of the cortex .

Before you jump to any conclusions about your own collecting habits consider this. The Bower bird of New Guinea and northern Australia, is the king of collectors. Not only is the Bower’s nest a sight to behold as it can cover several metres across, but the Bower gathers and collects a range of items.

These items include things such as nuts, distinct leaves and colorful flower buds.

They also tend to organize their collections into individual stock-piles. But the really interesting part is that it’s all arranged separately from each other. It’s absolutely fascinating to look at.

At first glance you may think it to be housekeeping or decorating. Some have actually theorized it’s all in order to attract a mate. The stock piles contents representing supply and survival to a potential partner. Whatever it is it’s definitely a fascinating topic to explore.

The focus of our collections don’t seem to have as much relevance as the Bower bird. Our collecting seems to be governed simply by what we have an interest in on a day-to-day basis.

It’s more about the process itself.

That process being to learn, to belong or …just to get a buzz. There may be many reasons why we collect.

Best of luck and collect well.


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