Better collate than never: Can collecting be an addiction?

In a previous blog on bibliomania (i.e., an obsessive-compulsive disorder associated with the collecting and hoarding of books), I briefly mentioned that collecting more generally could perhaps be addictive for some people. 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. 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 addictive. 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.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

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.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on September 1, 2013, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Mania, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Popular Culture, Psychological disorders, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this I have been fascinated by this issue and my own collecting behavior. I collect music, It started with collecting records, then making and collecting bootleg concert tapes and more recently collecting vinal ‘rips’ of old records in lossess 24 bit format… it is very addictive and I have spent far too much time on it. The most significant aspect is the dissociation state and losing time but many of these symptoms dont really come into play: here are some of my thoughts on these ‘symptoms’

    You look for/buy/trade collectibles for hours on end, and the time you spend doing this is increasing
    yes, but this is two issues one is hours on end, and the other that time is increasing, these should be separate as the time spent has been increasing and decreasing depending on a host of life factors.

    You think about collectibles constantly, even when you’re not collecting
    – I think this is over stated, and focusing on the aspect of thinking rather than doing…you thing about or engage in collecting very very frequent, and it usually will be your go-to behavior if possible to engage in it.

    You have missed important meetings/events because of collecting
    – this would be unlikely for people i suspect.

    It’s difficult for you to not buy more collectibles, even for just a few days
    – should say to not buy or gather more collectibles, most of my collecting is free

    You try to sneak more collectibles into your home
    — there is no need to do so as I live alone
    you hide the behavior in some manner might be better

    You have tried, unsuccessfully, to stop collecting
    better would be:
    you have tried, unsuccessfully, to stop or cut back on your collecting; or you did success for a while only to ‘relapse’ or resume at a pace that would be considered excessive by you or others.

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

    Your personal interests have changed because of your collecting
    too vague

    You have lost a personal or professional relationship because of collecting
    unlike I suspect

    I would add:
    you lose track of time when engaging in collecting
    you spend more time collecting items than actually using them
    you have more items than you could ever possibly use or enjoy but are still seeking more
    you have a complete-ist mentality where having a complete collection is placed secondary over quality (not sure I am hitting this one right or that it would apply in the broadest sense.
    An important aspect of your personal life is diminshed because of the collecting: health relationships, work…

    12 terabytes of lossless bootlegs, concert recordings and vinyl discograpys…. and growing

  2. Thank you for your insightful piece on this topic. I feel you both,author and reader, hit on a lot of good points, that I for one recognize from my own (record) collecting.

    I’d be very interested in reading your blog on record collecting, Mark, if it’s up anywhere.

  3. Actually is the first article on that matter that makes sense to me , and strikes the heart of the matter , I’m a collector and I ve been compulsive with my collecting in certain periods of my life , thankfully I keep the items in very good condition so when I get back to my self and senses and decide to thin out/clean out something it pays back pretty well till now . Thank you for writing this it really helps (me at least) to see where my behaviour becomes problematic and so to help myself avoid excess . Thank you again !!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: