Writing in a 2006 issue of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Dr. Peter Subkowski wrote that the urge to collect is a ubiquitous phenomenon that has anthropological, sociobiological and individual psychodynamic roots. In addition, Dr. Russell Belk writing in a 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality described collectors of mass-produced objects as falling into one of two main types: the taxonomic collector who attempts to own an example of every type of a series of items produced, and the aesthetic collector who simply gathers items because they are pleasing in some way.

So what are the motivations for collecting? In a 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, Dr. Ruth Formanek suggested five common motivations for collecting. These were: (i) extension of the self (e.g., acquiring knowledge, or in controlling one’s collection); (ii) social (finding, relating to, and sharing with, like-minded others); (iii) preserving history and creating a sense of continuity; (iv) financial investment; and (v), an addiction or compulsion. Formanek claimed that the commonality to all motivations to collect was a passion for the particular things collected.

One of the prime researchers in the ‘collecting’ field is Dr. Russell Belk who has written many papers and chapters on the topic. In a 1991 book chapter, Dr. Belk (along with Melanie Wallendorf, John F. Sherry, Jr., and Morris B. Holbrook) noted that:

“In examining literary and social science treatments of collecting…some regard it as a passion, others as a disease. It is frequently described as a pleasurable activity that can have some unpleasant consequences. In its pleasurable aspect, collecting embodies the characteristics of flow…It is an optimal experience that is psychologically integrating and socially beneficial. In its darker aspect, collecting is an activity over which many consumers fear losing control. Whether likened to idolatry or illness, collectors acknowledge the very real possibility that collecting can become additive. Danet and Katriel (1990) suggest that the seemingly self-deprecating admission of addiction to one's collection can be a way of disclaiming responsibility for uninhibited collecting. At the same time they recognize that ‘serious’ collectors relish their ability to freely express passion in their collecting activity. What apparently is being negotiated in the area between passion and addiction is the definition of whether the collector controls or is controlled by the activity of collecting”.

The chapter also claimed that the tendency to pursue an altered state of consciousness produced by any ritual activity “whether behaviorally via collecting, or pharmacologically via chemical use” is cross-culturally universal. Obviously they acknowledged that most collectors are not addicts but claimed there was “compelling evidence of its pervasiveness in the observations of others” based in self-report surveys, and the labels by which collectors in their research studies described themselves (e.g., “magazineaholic”, “getting a Mickey Mouse fix”, "print Junkie"). Brenda Danet and Tamara Katriel claimed some of their collectors’ said it was "a disease”. They also reported that Sigmund Freud amassed a large collection of 2,300 Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Chinese antiquities that eventually numbered approximately 2300 and described his collecting passion as "an addiction second in intensity only to his nicotine addiction". Based on their interviews with collectors, the chapter then went on to claim:

“Although almost any behavior can become addictive, the pattern of behavior characteristic of collectors makes it especially prone to addiction. Most collectors interviewed mentioned the search for additions to a collection as the central activity of their collecting behavior. Rather than spend time examining or organizing items that are already in the collection, collectors prefer to search or shop for additions to the collection. Search behavior may be compulsively and ritualistically enacted. Acquiring rather than possessing provides the temporary fix for the addict. A sense of longing and desire -- a feeling that something is missing in life -- is temporarily met by adding to the collection. But this is a temporary fix, a staving off of withdrawal, followed by a feeling of emptiness and anxiety that is addressed by searching for more. Shopping and searching are the ritualized means by which the collector obtains a sense of competence and mastery in life. These activities are the bittersweet consequences of experiencing longing in the arena of the marketplace”.

They also noted that searching and shopping for collection items highlight the ritualized aspects (i.e., it is patterned and repetitive). They provided the example of a Barbie doll collector that spent considerable time at doll shows that had specific rules that guided his doll buying (e.g., having the dealer completely undress then redress the doll to allow him to see if any part of the body is damaged). They also reported that items for their collection found in the search were often seen as having irresistible power over the person. One collector of antique bronzes was quoted as saying "I just had to have it. It had to be mine”. Searching for such items are “not the only addictive focus for collectors”. Belk and colleagues reported that:

“Compulsive attention to and control over the objects in the collection provides an additional source of feelings of control and mastery –important feelings to an addict. For example, one interpretation of the propensity of collectors to will their collections to museums is that, by doing so, they retain a certain sense of control of the collection by insuring that it will not fall into the hands of another collector. Collecting activity allows a collector to avoid other aspects of life. It is a form of withdrawal from other aspects of life that is nevertheless often positively sanctioned…On the whole, collecting, particularly for the addict, involves the individual in a repetitive, predictable pattern of behavior which can provide a form of solace for someone who is troubled by living in an unpredictable world”.

In a 1995 paper in the Journal of Economic Psychology, Dr. Belk carried out in-depth interviews with 200 collectors. He claimed that for most, collecting was a highly beneficial activity. However, he also noted there were extreme cases where collecting was found to be addictive and dysfunctional for the affected individuals and their families. He also wrote that:

“Collectors often refer to themselves, only half in jest, as suffering from a mania, a madness, an addiction, a compulsion, or an obsession. Because collecting is generally a socially approved activity, no one is likely to treat such a confession as stigmatizing in the way that it would be for an alcoholic, a heroin addict, a compulsive gambler, or someone truly believed to be mentally ill…But like much humor there is an uneasy fear behind these self-admissions, for some collectors really are out of control”.

The most vivid example that Belk encountered was a dealer and collector of Disney cartoon character replicas who was a recovering poly-drug abuser who himself described his collecting behaviour as an addiction. Over many years, he accumulated a large collection of Mickey Mouse memorabilia to obtained his "Mickey fix". Consequently he was often unable to pay his house rent or pay his bills. Belk claimed that he thrill of collecting and displaying his objects eventually threatened his psychological wellbeing and in the collector’s words had to go "cold turkey" and cease collecting.

Finally, in an online article about addictive collecting, Hale Dwoskin, CEO and director of training of Sedona Training Associates provided a list of symptoms of a collecting addiction:

• You look for/buy/trade collectibles for hours on end, and the time you spend doing this is increasing

• You think about collectibles constantly, even when you’re not collecting

• You have missed important meetings/events because of collecting

• It's difficult for you to not buy more collectibles, even for just a few days

• You try to sneak more collectibles into your home

• You have tried, unsuccessfully, to stop collecting

• Your family or friends have asked you to cut back on collecting

• Your personal interests have changed because of your collecting

• You have lost a personal or professional relationship because of collecting

As an ‘avid’ collector myself (of records, CDs and music in general) I can certainly see how collecting can become an expensive habit that goes beyond disposable income. Although I think that it is theoretically possible to be addicted to collecting, the number of genuine ‘collecting addicts’ is likely to be very low.

References and further reading

Belk, R. W. (1982). Acquiring, possessing, and collecting: fundamental processes in consumer behavior. Marketing Theory: Philosophy of Science Perspectives, 185-190. 

Belk, R. W. (1992). Attachment to possessions. In: Place attachment (pp. 37-62). New York: Springer.

Belk, R. W. (1994). Collectors and collecting. Interpreting objects and collections, 317-326.

Belk, R. W. (1995). Collecting as luxury consumption: Effects on individuals and households. Journal of Economic Psychology, 16(3), 477-490.

Belk, R.W., Wallendorf, M., Sherry, J.F., & Holbrook, M.B. (1991). Collecting in a consumer culture. In: Highways and buyways: Naturalistic research from the consumer behavior odyssey, pp.178-215.

Danet, B. & Katriel, T. (1989). No two alike: The aesthetics of collecting. Play and Culture, 2, 253-277.

Formanek, R. (1991). Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 275-286.

MacLeod, K. (2007). Romps with Ransom’s King: Fans, Collectors, Academics, and the MP Shiel Archives. ESC: English Studies in Canada, 30(1), 117-136

Subkowski, P. (2006). On the psychodynamics of collecting. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 87, 383-401.

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