The empirical sciences are meant to demystify those aspects of human nature that have eluded us. Sometimes, though, for all of our progress, our means of exploring and expressing the psychological underpinnings of universal experiences seem inadequate for the task. Case in point: collecting.

Humans have been collecting things ever since we developed the ability to gather more trinkets than were actually required for basic survival. While you might be able to theorize that the need to collect things has to do with our primal desire for security by accumulating items of personal interest, the psychological community is still at a loss for a more specific answer.

It might be baseball cards, taxidermied squirrels, 1940’s Romanian pinup posters, Arnold Schwarzenegger action figures, or whatever else tickles your fancy; the truth is, all collectors have reasons of their own for engaging in impulsive behaviors. The question, then, is this: what, psychologically speaking, ties the majority of collectors together?

Well, it seems we can’t even collect a consensus on the matter.

Freud Has a Theory for Everything

Sigmund Freud

Credit: The Print Collector

There has been a theory or two on why the accumulation of stuff helps satisfy the human need for psychological security (or simply just makes us humans happy). When in doubt, though, there’s always Sigmund Freud.

Freud theorized that our need to collect things has its roots in our potty training days. As little kids, we’d see what had become of our precious Sunny D swirling down the drain and this distressed us, because we had lost control of something that was once ours. If Freud is to be believed, collecting is a direct response to, quite literally, pissing away our feeling of control.

Whether or not you’re sticking with that story is up to you, but there aren’t too many authoritative voices these days supporting Freud’s theory as a sufficient explanation.

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The point is, there has been a theory or two, but none of them have what we’d call universal support.

There’s Collecting, and Then There’s Hoarding

What the language of psychology can help us with is coming to terms with the difference between a collector and a hoarder. While there are quite a few subtle differences in clinical terms, there are two main factors:

  • First: all collectors have their reasons – but those reasons usually boil down to logical or sentimental motivations. For example: while 100-year-old stamps aren’t exactly useful for sending your mother a lovely greeting card, some can be worth quite a bit of money and are historical artifacts. Stamp collecting aficionado Earl Apfelbaum would be the first to tell you that stamp collectors’ motivations have little in common with psychological disorders.
  • Second: collectors might end up in a once-in-a-blue-moon tiff with a spouse or roommate because that baseball card cost more than a basketful of groceries. Overall, though, collectors tend not to engage in dangerous or self-destructive behavior. Collecting is a life-enriching hobby – not an unhealthy compulsion. Hoarders are compulsive, and often at a concerning level.

Collectors would excitably show you their favorite autographed Eagles jersey from 1979. Hoarders would likely not want you in their house, because you’ll try to steal one of their 47 precious cats.

Your Collection Says Something About You

Sponge Bob has a hobby too - collecting dust. Nice!

Sponge Bob has a hobby too – collecting dust. Nice!

Keep in mind that psychological diagnoses must meet a carefully considered set of symptoms. So you might want to refrain from “diagnosing” the guy across the street with a disorder, even though you think he’s got an unhealthy obsession with Depression-era clown dolls.

Nevertheless, the APA has finally come up with a new DSM-5 category for the “Hoarding Disorder.” Though many still believe that their rather loose definitions and diagnosis criteria need a great deal of work, it seems that the issue of hoarding has lately been attracting attention in the psychological community. This is one case where public imagination (thanks in no small part to a certain reality TV show) ran with an idea before science came up with an official explanation.

According to the DSM-5, a “hoarding disorder” is dependent on:

  • Resulting impairment and hindrance in normal life functions (social, occupational, etc.)
  • No other disorders, such as OCD or major depression disorder, can be “attributed” to hoarding.

Basically, if you have no idea why you can’t stop hoarding absolutely useless things, and the thought of getting rid of your collection is like asking Gollum to throw the One Ring into the volcano, then you might want to seek help.

Collecting the Past

Though they’re in the process of wrapping their brains around the issue of hoarding, modern psychologists still have no definition or diagnosis for the average-Joe collectors out there. In a way, this might simply be less of a psychological condition and more of a human one.

Collecting is largely seen as being a way of satisfying that natural desire to preserve the past.

For instance, those who collect historical WWII memorabilia could actively be attempting to preserve for themselves a small piece of a legendary era. Also, a collector of guitar picks from famous rock stars might not even play the guitar – but it’s a hobby that might preserve personal memories of younger, wilder days. Same goes for collecting music; you’re building a historical record of the evolution of your musical tastes.

Either way, collecting is a way keeping a little piece of the past for ourselves. This is an undeniably human thing to do, and is tidily explained without the use of Freud’s admittedly rich bathroom imagery.