Our Collective Impulses

The psychology behind

personal archives and collecting

Shafaq Nami, Science and Technology Editor

As students, we often become accidental archivists: Whether it be old class notes or miscellaneous campus merch, our lives are often full of these collections. Sometimes, our collections of what initially appears as trash become treasured. Students also move a lot, resulting in an annual cycle of packing and unboxing, which makes it difficult to sustain one’s collections. Getting rid of belongings should be easy, but sometimes parting with the things one spent time and money collecting seems impossible.

I have been collecting books ever since I first learned to read, and it was not until I moved away for university that I even considered giving them away. Moving halfway around the world to attend university sounded like an adventure, until I realized that I had to fit my whole life into two 23-kilogram suitcases. I had not reread many of the books in my collection in years—being too busy with academics, life, and discovering new books—and they were certainly too heavy to transport to a new continent, just for them to collect dust. When I was younger, I defined myself through my books, as they offered me much needed company and adventure. While it was daunting to say goodbye to something I had treasured for years, moving away and travelling gave me a new perspective.

The tendency to collect is certainly not restricted to me, however. In fact, humans have been collecting things ever since they developed the ability to store more things than necessary for basic survival. The different objects people collect as well as the motivations behind these collections intrigued me, so I began investigating what factors inform this phenomenon.

Most human behaviour like collecting is rooted in biology and evolution, evolved from years of survival and self-preservation. Richard Koestner is a professor at McGill’s Department of Psychology whose research focuses on personality and motivation.

“There is an evolutionary explanation that has been offered for almost all human behaviors,” Koestner wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “I would guess it is largely genetic and [...] does confer some broad fitness advantage to individuals, and that there is an advantage to groups if there are some people [present] who collect and organize things.’’

Collecting had an obvious advantage before the Neolithic Revolution, when being able to gather more food and scarce objects ensured longer survival. Nowadays, the definition of collection refers to the accumulation of objects we do not need or use in everyday lives, which only became possible 12,000 years ago when humans gave up their nomadic lifestyles. In the 19th century, collections ranging from art and books to fossils and zoological specimens were kept by aristocrats as status symbols. Indeed, the environment and time period people grow up in may affect the collections they have.

“There are developmental trends for collecting objects, so when I was a boy in the U.S. many of us collected and traded baseball cards,” Koestner wrote. “We treasured certain cards. Some of us held on to those cards but 98 per cent did not. The two per cent who held onto them are the interesting group.”

Many of us who have grown up with these fads may accidentally strike gold. For instance, the ever-popular Pokemon cards have their own niche market, with most rare cards valued at over $200,000. In fact, many collections have been sold or auctioned for large amounts of money. Baltimore banker Louis E. Eliasberg’s coin collection sold for $44.9 million in 1982. Art, coins, stamps and sports or movie merchandise collections tend to fetch high values—in 2014 a one-cent postage stamp from the 19th century sold for $9.5 million.

There are many reasons behind why people invest time and money into collections besides monetary value and investment: Family and emotional connection, or even the thrill of finding a rare object. Some of these reasons might be hereditary as well.

“Perhaps there is also early family modeling or reinforcement, but that is always tricky because of genetic similarity between parent and child,” Koestner wrote. “I recall a video of two identical twins raised separately but reunited at age 35, and they learned they had bought and collected the same dolls and both kept them in their original packages.’’

Amy Pagé, U2 Management, has an ever-expanding collection of 130 snow globes from around the world. Her snow globes range in size and value, and some are even handcrafted with small details by local artisans. From warmer regions where snow globes are less popular, Pagé has collected their equivalents, which are made from sand and called "sand globes.”

Pagé’s collection began when her grandparents, frequent world travellers, were not sure what to bring back as souvenirs.

“One day, I told them that I liked snow globes because they were pretty, and then they would always bring me back a snow globe from a different city,” Pagé wrote in an email to the Tribune. “Then, it just started to become a ‘thing’ in my family and everyone who would go to a specific city would bring me one back.”

As Pagé began to travel herself, she began expanding her collection. Maintaining a collection has its difficulties: In cities where snow globes are not as commonplace, it would often take hours for her grandparents to find them.

“I have some that are from cities that I have never heard [of] before and that most people probably also never have,” Pagé wrote “Bringing them back from different countries is always a stress for my grandparents [or] parents or myself, as you never know if they are going to explode in your suitcase.”

Pagé is not the only collector in her family. Her grandfather has amassed over 600 keychains from around the world, which she cites as an inspiration to start her own collection. She does not plan on selling her snow globes, even though they are currently stored in boxes because of the lack of space in Pagé’s apartment.

According to a study conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, people are more likely to start a collection once they possess two items of the same kind. Researchers believe this is because due to a perception that owning multiple similar objects is being wasteful. To justify not giving away something that brings them joy, individuals then start a collection.

Amir Shah, U4 Engineering, has collected coins since his adolescence while living in the United Arab Emirates. While Shah had always been intrigued by the different shapes and sizes of coins, as well as how a coin’s physical attributes signified its value, his collection did not start until he came across his first foreign coin.

“I was lucky to be in a place where people hail from everywhere and it wasn’t a ‘cashless’ age, so I learnt to keep my eyes open for coins that were different, whether it’d be a special edition local coin or a foreign coin,” Shah wrote in an email to the Tribune.

Shah has not spent a lot of money on his coin collection: Instead of buying rare or commemorative coins, he has accumulated his collection through friends at school who would bring back foreign coins from vacations and by exchanging local currency for foreign coins at immigrant owned grocery stores in his neighborhood. His current collection spans more than 60 countries.

“I’m really [still] just a 12-year old boy who just likes collecting different coins because they are different and special and I happen to come across them,” Shah wrote. “Initially it started out of curiosity and it evolved into a hobby to fill my time with. I’d keep a log, clean them to scrap the stains and dust off, and keep them in plastic folders and label them. Soon I tried to understand what the value of each currency is and how that kept changing over time.”

Shah has since gone digital, using Excel to catalogue his collection, and has even researched the coins and their history. Discovering that his coins span from British Colonial India to Ottoman Turkey to imperial Ethiopia sparked his interest in global history and cultures.

While Shah initially did not have a motive at the time for collecting coins—beyond his curiosity— he has since used his collection to preserve past connections. In moving away from home, Shah’s coin collection keeps him tied to the people and places he may never see again.

“I realise [my tendency to collect is] because I’ve been moving around from a very young age,” Shah wrote. “My only memories of people and places are often things that I hoard—books, picture frames, coins, souvenirs. I’m a classic case of a third culture kid—parents from two different places, born somewhere, grown up in a couple of places, and now live somewhere else. I’ve never lived in a house we owned as a family, no ‘permanent’ home. So I feel all I have [is this] stuff.”

Shah also has a large book collection divided between his parent’s home in the UAE and his current residence in Canada. As Shah moves around cities, the collection in Canada is put in storage. Although moving around heavy boxes is not easy, he does not wish to part with his collection and hopes that one day when he settles down, he will be able to display them.

Each collector has their own reasons—reasons that often boil down to logical or sentimental motivations. It is possible that people who collect have certain behaviors and characteristics in common; for example, people with stronger emotional connections to objects or those that like organizing things may be more likely to start a collection.

“I would think personality traits are relevant here. There is a distinction between empathizers and systemizers that has been made by Baron-Cohen and it seems to capture whether certain people like sorting and categorizing, and I would think that might relate to collecting,” Koestner wrote. “The theory has been criticized for being largely speculative. I would guess that there are wired-in personality styles that may predispose one to do this [and] that childhood behavior might foretell this tendency.”

Collecting has many benefits, ranging from enhancement of pattern recognition and organizational skills to improving social skills and invoking a desire for knowledge. It is the purposeful curation of objects and is very different from the accumulation of items triggered by disorders like hoarding and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The psychology behind collecting is not easy to quantify and has stumped psychologists for years. While there is no clear scientific answer to this phenomenon, it is clear that each collection has its own story, and each collector their own distinct reasons for collecting.

“I would be careful about pathologizing this behavior,” Koestner wrote. “There are probably many reasons people might collect things—sentimental value, emotion, autobiographical connections, being part of a community of collectors, etc.”

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