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Loneliness or Attachment Anxiety: Reasons for Collectors to Collect?

Why we collect goes beyond pleasure. Less recognized reasons may be unsettling.

Key points

  • Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to an animal, object, or even a subject seen to be exerting power.
  • One study found that a contributing factor to anthropomorphism is a lack of social connectedness.
  • In another study, subjects induced to feel lonely demonstrated higher rates of anthropomorphism.
  • Researchers found that attachment anxiety was a better predictor of anthropomorphism than loneliness.

An acquaintance casually mentioned recently that he wondered about an association between collecting objects and fear of attachment to humans. I immediately wanted to discard his theory, thinking it hadn’t been studied and would be difficult.

In retrospect, he brought up an interesting concept and one that I believe now merits attention. The salient question here is, could a desire for collectible objects be partly a way to counteract feelings of loneliness or, at a more basic level, relate to attachment anxiety?

Certainly, it is fair to say we don’t know the answer to these specific questions. But we know what the literature says that relates to them tangentially. That brings up some interesting possibilities for discussion and research going forward.

Humans have a need to be social, which leads to a feeling of belonging. This inclusion makes humans feel positive about themselves. However, when this link is broken, the need for human interaction can be replaced by another bond. In some, it is to animals. In others, it is to inanimate objects or even a greater power.

Research Related to the Salient Questions

This non-human bond is called anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to an animal, object, or even a subject seen to be exerting power (such as God). Epley et al. (2007) suggested that a contributing factor to anthropomorphism is the lack of social connectedness. This deficit then leads to attributing human qualities to non-humans, i.e., objects, pets, etc.

Though not specifically addressed, collectors could theoretically be drawn to the objects of their choice as a result of loneliness, or even in other cases, fear of attachment which could lead to self-induced loneliness.

In another study (Akalis et al., 2008), subjects who were induced to feel lonely were tested at higher rates of anthropomorphism.

In yet a third study, Bartz et al. (2016) expanded the research of Epley et al. by demonstrating that prompting people to remember caring relationships attenuated anthropomorphism. Thus, the work of Epley et al. was duplicated.

The authors then examined whether other parameters of social detachment were related to anthropomorphism. Here, a self-report was included, which addressed loneliness, attachment anxiety, attachment avoidance, need to belong, and self-esteem.

The results showed that attachment anxiety was significantly related to anthropomorphizing, “attachment anxiety was a better predictor of anthropomorphism than loneliness.” This conclusion was supported by a sample nearly nine times that of Epley et al.. In addition, the subjects were less homogeneous, suggesting the effect's generalization.

This part of the authors' research is equally important to their initial finding, the duplication of the results of the earlier researchers.

Conclusion and Looking Ahead

In summary, what we have here is another look at why people might collect objects, including arts of all kinds, both fine art, decorative art, and lesser collectibles. Granted, it is theoretical, but nevertheless plausible.

We know collecting gives collectors pleasure because pleasure is what motivates humans after their primary needs such as food, water and shelter are met. But, beyond that, many factors contribute to the reasons that collectors collect. In my book, Inside the Head of a Collector: Neurological Forces at Play, I reiterated many human needs other than pleasure, including intellectual stimulation, creating a legacy, acquiring objects to give to museums or other institutions as well as relatives at death, acquiring social status, etc.

Another is the social interaction collectors glean from organizations they belong to, which supply companionship with like-minded individuals. The latter is pleasant for all collectors but may be a crucial advantage for some seeking relief from attachment anxiety, as seen by Bartz et al., or loneliness, as suggested by Epley et al.


Epley, N., Waytz, A., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2007). On seeing human: A three-factor theory of anthropomorphism. Psychological Review, 114, 864–886.

Epley, N., Akalis, S., Waytz, A., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2008). Creating social connection through inferential reproduction: Loneliness and perceived agency in gadgets, gods, and greyhounds. Psychological Science, 19, 114–120.

Bartz JA, Tchalova K and Fenerci C 2016 Reminders of social connection can attenuate anthropomorphism: A replication and extension of Epley, Akalis, Waytz, and Cacioppo (2008) Psychol. Sci. 27 (12) 1644-50.

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