Regular readers of my blog will know that I have written a few blogs on the psychology of collecting as an addiction in addition to specific types of obsessive collecting such as record collecting. Over the last two weeks I have twice been asked to appear on radio shows talking about the ‘Panini sticker collecting craze’ that is allegedly sweeping across the UK in the run up to the start of the World Cup. My son is avidly collecting Panini stickers and yesterday I showed him my own Panini sticker books that I have kept since filling them in during the 1978 to 1980 period.
Like my youngest son now, I remember spending every last penny of my 10-pence a week pocket money buying packet after packet of stickers trying to complete my collection. One of the reasons I may have been asked to appear on radio shows was that there was an article in last week’s issue of The Guardian newspaper about the adults who are getting “misty-eyed” about Panini stickers. Ian Shoesmith, 38-year-old author of The Guardian piece and father of a four-year old son, claimed he was collecting the latest stickers:
“I rip the packets of stickers open with all the excitement and anticipation of the 10-year-old boy that I used to be, and inhale their long-forgotten but oh-so-familiar odour of glue mixed with sticky tape and paper…But my childhood passion – the thrill of racing to the paper shop, handing over all of my pocket money, desperate to be greeted by the mulleted head of a Soviet-bloc defender – is dismissed, out-of-hand, by my son. But I will persist in collecting them – for when he changes his mind. I’m most definitely not collecting them for myself. Definitely not”.
Shoesmith claimed in his article there are countless adults in the UK doing the same thing as him and had interviewed a number of people for the article. (In fact I read a statistic claiming that up to 15% of all children’s toys are bought by adults for themselves rather than their children). One thing I can appreciate is Shoesmith’s view that “it’s easier to hide adult nostalgia when you have a child who is genuinely interested in the stickers”. This definitely holds true in my household. One of the people interviewed for The Guardian article was 48-year old Mark Jensen (editor of a Newcastle United fanzine) and father to a 10-year-old son. He noted:
“For about four years [my son] would [collect] them all the time – the cards as well as the stickers…They were even banned at his school because of all of the arguments they caused. Some kids turned out to be far shrewder investors than others and rip other kids off by swapping the shiny stickers for normal ones and stuff like that…I do remember when I was a kid that there was a conspiracy story that some stickers were impossible to collect – there must be zillions of almost-completed albums out there. Nowadays I’ve heard of ‘virtual stickers’ but they are the antithesis to collecting in my view – you need the physical experience of opening the packet, all of your mates crowding round you to see what you’ve got”.
I agree fully with many of Shoesmith’s observations. I almost live vicariously through my 12-year old son opening his packets of World Cup football stickers. I love seeing his face light up when he gets a sticker that he really wants. I love seeing the anticipation of opening as I can remember those feelings myself, even though they were 35 years ago. I clearly remember going into school with a pile of ‘swapsies’ hoping that I could find the rarities needed to complete each double page. I loved it when I completed a line of three or four players, a page of players, a double page of players. It was like a bingo player filling up lines of numbers and then getting the full house (i.e., a completed page).
I never managed to complete a single football sticker book when I was a tweenager and there were always certain stickers that were seen as rarities (although got very close to a complete a Panini book in 1978). I loved the physicality of the books and stickers (and am no different now with my record and CD collecting – I always prefer CD and vinyl over MP3s). Shoesmith interviewed some academics for his article. Professor Carol Mavor (Manchester University) said that:
“Stickers are very tactile and old-fashioned. The humanity of touch is also very powerful. That’s why people love wooden toys, for example, because they have a unique feel, smell and are real. Adults don’t want to let go of their childhood completely…It seems, without being overly morbid, to be so far away from death, work and the other obligations of adulthood. As adults, we think of ourselves as different people from our childhood selves – the whole world was open to us and it was a free and more creative life.”
According to psychologist Felix Economakis (also interviewed by Shoesmith), there are likely to be gender differences and sentimentality:
“It’s down to sentimental attachment. Little objects from childhood are imbued with meaning because they remind us of people who may no longer be with us – it’s an association with the past through rose-tinted spectacles…Men are more into lists, while women tend to collect something with sentimental value. For men, partly it’s about status, and collecting for the sake of it. [Collecting is] quite a solitary activity”.
I also came across an interesting article written by P.M. Davies on the Design Thinkers website that related the collecting of football stickers to gamification. In the opening paragraph, he talked of being “addicted” to collecting them (although I’m sure he meant in a somewhat pejorative sense). He wrote that:
“If you grew up in the UK you may remember Panini sticker albums that encouraged kids to collect stickers of their favourite soccer players…As you collected you filled up your album and traded cards with your friends in the struggle to complete the full album. Every week when I got my pocket money I went down to the newsagent to buy packets of stickers in the hope I would get that rare one that had so far eluded me. I wasn’t alone as thousands of kids did the same. The strange thing was I didn’t even like soccer! I never have liked soccer and loathed watching games or even talking about it – and yet I was addicted to collecting the stickers. This is a great example of how strong the power of collecting is for us. For me it overruled the fact that I had no interest (and in fact quite a dislike) for the subject matter and got me obsessed with completing my set. I also collected novelty erasers but this was a more freeform collection and it didn’t awaken quite the same obsession as the soccer stickers. In fact the mechanisms set-up by Panini, and other similar companies, were very clever indeed and it is these techniques that are being used more in gamification projects”.
Davies notes (as I have done in my previous blogs) there are many articles that have been written on the psychology of collecting. Davies claims most of these writings are on what he calls ‘freeform collecting’ (“the urge to collect things like erasers, marbles, clocks, cars, hats, teddy bears, postcards and so on”). Davies says these are freeform because there is no limit to the collection. He argues that it is the more “structured form of collecting” (such as collecting football stickers) are related to gamification (i.e., the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems) because it involves a number of key features (my emboldened emphasis):
- “There is an achievable goal that is being moved towards (e.g. completing the entire sticker album);
- You can see what your current progress is towards that goal (e.g. the filled versus blank spaces in your sticker album);
- The scarcity effect is used (e.g. some stickers are harder to find than others);
- Status (e.g. the status of your collection effects your own status amongst your peers);
- Group identification (e.g. getting a sense of solidarity with other collectors
Davies claims these five features these form a very powerful motivational system and can be (and are) used in commercial situations (such as the awarding of badges as virtual rewards). There are debates as to whether such reward systems actually work (as the rewards have no value whatsoever in the real world). But as Davies noted:
“Research has been carried out which shows that the fun and interest in striving towards a goal is often the primary reward (Ariely & Norton, 2009). Therefore as long as badges are the embodiment of going through a good experience it becomes a symbol and not a reward in itself. Most of the controversy at the moment is actually a criticism of organisations who are applying the badge system incorrectly rather than claims that the psychology behind it is flawed”.
Looking at my own collecting behaviour, I can honestly say that the striving towards a goal can indeed be rewarding, but for me the actual acquisition of the item being collected brings about the biggest reward.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Ariely, D., & Norton, M. I. (2009). Conceptual consumption. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 475-499.
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.
Davies, P.M. (2012). Collecting. Design Thinkers, February 13. Located at: http://www.design-thinkers.co.uk/collecting/
Formanek, R. (1991). Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 275-286.
Shoesmith, I. (2014). The adults who get misty-eyed over Panini World Cup stickers. BBC Online News Magazine, May 6. Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27051215
Wikipedia (2014). Gamification. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification