When Does Collecting Become A Compulsion?

For some, collecting things is a harmless way to spend time and introduce a healthy, harmless diversion into our lives. Meanwhile, for others, collecting can take a turn toward the tragic.

The purpose of science is to help us make sense of the world around us — or the much larger world inside our heads. It helps to give us an understanding of natural laws and helps demystify the inner workings of the brain. But sometimes, science fails to provide consensus. This is the case with the phenomenon we call collecting.

Whether it’s old coins, stamps, trading cards, or Beanie Babies, many of us have items that we find particularly alluring, and that we’re strangely compelled to collect. For me, it’s CDs; I find it strangely centering to tend to my physical music collection, even if the bulk of it also exists digitally on my computer.

But we’ve all heard stories about hoarders: those who impulsively keep a significant number of possessions, animals, or even trash, in their homes — to the detriment of their health and happiness.

This is the darker side of collecting, and one that reveals how science occasionally fails to provide us with a tidy explanation of our habits.

What Would Freud Say?

Over the years, a number of helpful (and some not-so-helpful) explanations have arisen to help explain why human beings seem predisposed to collecting and hoarding.

One theory was put forward by Freud, who suggested — unlikely as it might sound — that our predilection for collecting is a remnant from our potty training days. The theory goes something like this: as children, ownership is extremely important to us. We don’t like sharing our toys or our juice boxes. So when we become aware of our more private bodily functions — namely, the evacuation of liquid waste — we become distressed because we have lost ownership of something that was once ours.

It probably sounds strange, this notion that potty training and collecting are linked with the very human tendency to value control and ownership, but the scientific community has not yet roundly dismissed Freud’s theory.

Hoarding vs. Collecting

If science is the process of understanding and defining what we see around us, then understanding impulsive behaviors like collecting and hoarding depends very much on establishing a consistent basis for comparison. Given that, here are the two main differentiating factors we can use to separate the two:

  • Collectors have reasons for what they do. These can be logical, practical, or sentimental reasons, but reasons nonetheless. Collecting stamps, for example, is less practical than it is sentimental; you wouldn’t use these to send your mother-in-law a Christmas card. That doesn’t mean the pursuit is without merit — and it certainly doesn’t mean that collecting is in the same ballpark as a psychological disorder.
  • The habits of collectors don’t typically interfere with their lives in a negative way. Sure, mild domestic disputes might arise when Dad’s collection of Budweiser memorabilia spills into the family room, but this has little in common with the sort of desperate or self-destructive tendencies of the average hoarder. Collecting is a hobby — not a destructive compulsion.

The Language of Science

So if we wanted to diagnose our weird Matryoshka doll-obsessed neighbor as a hoarder, where would science tell us to draw the line?

Only in recent years has the APA actually settled on a DSM-5 definition for hoarding as a disorder. While certain reality TV shows have convinced us that we know the signs, the language of science is quite a bit more exacting. According to the DSM-5, the qualifications for hoarding disorder include:

  • Habits that result in the impairment of normal social or occupational functions
  • An absence of other disorders (depression, OCD) that could result in compulsive behaviors

Links to the Past

That probably doesn’t sound like the most detailed or exhaustive explanation, but it’s more than we had just a few years ago. For a less formal explanation, we may point to the fact that collecting often has to do with a desire to catalog and preserve history — either our personal or our cultural past.

Nobody would call out a lovingly curated art museum as evidence of a mental disorder; rather, it serves as a public collection of items from our shared past — an exercise in both preservation and mindfulness. And, as legendary stamp collector Earl Apfelbaum might remind us, nostalgia is sometimes a powerful motivator.

So, as rich as Freud’s bathroom imagery might be, it’s surely not the one-size-fits all explanation we might want for categorizing an important human behavior. But more than that, we’re reminded that the life of the mind is revealed only one tantalizingly small detail at a time.

Image via Patricia Hofmeester / Shutterstock.

Daniel Faris

Mr. Daniel Faris pursued an unorthodox path in college, dual-majoring in biology and creative writing. He's put these very different skills to work as a freelance journalist, focusing on the technological and scientific advancements that help to shape politics, policy, and cultural change.
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