What Is The Collecting Mindset?

The activity of manufactured collecting is puzzling; what explains the enormous resources spent on what is, by and large, neither lucrative, prestigious, nor entertaining? Is it just a misfire and quirk of human psychology poorly adapted to industrial society where 'collectibles' can be varied and marketed 24/7/365?
sociology⁠, psychology⁠, insight-porn⁠, economics
2021-03-312021-05-04 in progress certainty: possible importance: 3 backlinks


What is the “collecting mentality”? Is it a dimension of which hoarding is the extreme?

When I was a kid, I went through a collecting phase with Pokemon cards, and to a lesser extent, Neopets; many of my peers were instead obsessed with Magic: The Gathering, Warhammer, Runescape etc. At the time, it made perfect sense to me to obsess over how to get a shiny Charizard (and to my classmates, to the point where the principal had to ban cards in school); but eventually it sort of wore off, I stopped walking 2 miles to the local card shop to check if there were any booster packs, the album of cards gathered dust, and when my Neopets account was banned for overly-aggressive stock trading one day, I didn’t bother logging into my alts. And you know what? My life was the no worse for lack of first editions or Wands of Wishing, but I struggle to recall how it could have seemed to matter so much at the time.

Observations

My stylized observations about “collecting” (many of which appear to apply to hoarding as well):

  • intrinsic vs perceived value; unrelated to quality (eg toy collectors do not open the package to play with the toy, book collectors do not bother reading the book and prefer books whose pages are still ‘uncut’ and which can’t be read, highly-collectible Nike basketball sneakers are not used competitively on the basketball court or even worn on the streets)

  • often mimetic or skeuomorph of some now-obsolete use, and parasitic on what used to be important criteria of quality/esthetics

  • perception of authenticity far more important than reality (eg all the museums filled with fakes, the ease forgers experience in selling, un-interest of collectors & dealers in exposing fakes)

  • perceived scarcity more important than reality: http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/May-2014/Ty-Warner/

  • association with high-status figures

  • Ponzi scheme dynamics: most are net losers

  • potential for arbitrarily large losses—can soak up any amount of money

  • manufactured scarcity: or being crippled is good! hard to explain on any esthetic pretexts

  • clearly distinguishable into at least two types, “elite” collecting and mass collecting, which can overlap but are not the same:

    When buys (possibly sight unseen) a for half a billion dollars to build a museum around while running an anti-corruption campaign, he is not doing at all the same thing you do buying a Luke Skywalker doll still in wrapper off eBay—he is not swept by esthetic joy or “completing his da Vinci collection” or anything like that. What he is doing is demonstrating his unlimited wealth & power by squandering it, in ways unthinkable even for garden-variety billionaires, to acquire a talisman connected to figures out of legend, imbuing it with the mana from half a billion dollars, to build a shrine at which the world can come to worship and see each other worship. And when the painting passes out of his hands, it will be more valuable for having been owned by a figure like MSM. It is scarcely necessary for anyone to actually look at said painting (see Abandoned Footnote’s “Propaganda Art as Signaling” on Veyne 1988).

    Likewise, an old man collecting stamps by himself is not attempting to evade taxes, export capital via Swiss freeports, buy his way onto the board of a NYC museum, or impress dinner guests. His ownership is irrelevant except as a matter of checking paperwork to anyone buying his stamp collection posthumously. Only at the high end do these two worlds overlap—Christies and comics only meet when C-notes and C-suites start showing up. There may be a historical connection in that the prestige/high-end world bootstrapped from the low-end collecting world1⁠, and some rich people with the collecting mentality serve as a ‘backstop’ and ‘buyers of last resort’ in the high-end world ensuring the bubble doesn’t pop, but they are not the same thing.

    The difference is particularly clear in considering art theft: reportedly, fine-art thieves who aren’t stealing “on commission” often discover that the mythical ultra-rich amoral collector who wants to buy their hot goods without being able to show them off publicly or sell them, does not exist; and are forced to either return or destroy them. One fine-art thief drew notice when a painting was discovered decades later hung on the back of his bedroom door—apparently he just liked to… look at it? (What a psycho. Who’d ever want to look at modern art like “bananas taped to a wall”?) Kleptomaniac collectors, on the other hand, like bird egg poachers or the “connoisseur book thief”⁠, seem to frequently retain much or all of their thefts, selling mostly to support themselves, without any need to show off, and indeed pursuing their obsession in the face of repeated legal penalties, sometimes to their destruction: merely possessing the thing in itself is enough.

  • minimal internal status, no external status payoffs (or outright status penalties)

    Unlike aristocrats showing off their tapestry collection or ⁠, or billionaires showing off their Warhol even (perhaps especially) to people uninterested in textiles or the Pop Art movement, most collectors are quite solitary, and even unable to show off their collection to anyone but a fellow collector (part of why conventions & the Internet are so important). What would you think of someone who insisted on showing you their Beanie Baby collection at length? (“They must have Asperger’s”, at best, and “what a complete jerk” at worst.) What does their wife think? If nothing else, about the opportunity cost…

    • collecting of low-status objects: many collectors, or types of collecting, bootstrap from worthless or despised objects; they may eventually become more prestigious (or at least, socially accepted), but at their origin and for a long time afterwards, there was no status to be gained, not even among other collectors
  • rarity, especially uniqueness

  • intermittent reinforcement of payoffs

  • anti-market norms: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/12/luxury-sneaker-markets-capitalist-nikes-resale

  • intangible auras

  • animal parallels in sexual selection

  • minimal presence in impoverished people/EEA (despite plenty of other toys, recreations, and leisure time)2⁠, seen only among elites (most apparent instances like ‘collecting’ skulls or masks explainable otherwise)

  • ‘collectogenic’ environments of modernity: extremely cheap production of very wide variety of ‘manufactured scarcity’, starting with woodblock printing (eg ukiyo-e woodblock prints in Edo Japan, loose printed songs and pamphlets and other ephemera in Europe post-Gutenberg)

  • arbitrary associations, typically stemming from childhood; commercial exploitation typically builds on or imitates endogenous ‘natural’ instances

  • male-skewed; potential autism connection

  • comorbidity with other collections: collectors may specialize, but many engage in multiple kinds of collecting during their lives

  • no net hedonic gain, treadmill, possibly worse intrinsic enjoyment (curse of connoisseurship). The fundamental experience is of and wanting rather than liking⁠.

  • personal ambivalence

  • U-curve life cycle: most intense in childhood/adolescence, nadir in mid-life, but continuing long past end of reproductive lifetime & career, often intensifying during retirement

Signaling Gone Haywire

Here is one evolutionary psychology story we could tell to explain collecting: collecting is a pathological extreme of ordinary social sexually-selected behavior which is maladapted in a modern economy overloaded with variety & perceived scarcity/value (much of it manufactured specifically to exploit collecting behavior). This is a similar story as we tell about other mental traits like ADHD, OCD, bipolar, depression, Big Five personality factors (some background: ⁠, ⁠, SSC): there is an inherent trade-off, such as the explore-exploit tradeoff, which can’t be solved perfectly a priori, and while most people fall into the golden mean, it’s difficult to avoid going too far into the extremes.

Origins

As a costly signal of quality, simple ‘collecting’ behaviors are sexually selected; eg male birds collecting shiny bits and bobs for nest-building. This sort of behavior is more necessary for men, who propose, than women, who choose. Such psychology is much more elaborate in humans, where it gets involved in art, religion, and social status: limited forms of collecting tools or natural objects or artwork are useful in signaling one’s surplus resources, intellectual ability to understand and discriminate, and ability to navigate the current local fashions & affiliate oneself with local elites. Because of the elaboration and flexibility, children are not born trying to collect anything specific, but imprint on local fashions. Since it’s there to be costly and impress others, the underlying quality is irrelevant (much like it is irrelevant if our verbal reasoning is correct as long as it convinces others), and it only matters that something seems novel or scarce; should someone try to critique it, it is helpful to have an unfalsifiable story about how it is subtly useful that tasteless incompetent fools like the critic cannot perceive, or is made of rare and expensive materials, or has a connection to entities like gods or dead men who are unavailable to gainsay it. Easy-judged qualities like shininess or smoothness, or being clearly distinct from all other instances, are important to collectibilty. It also explains the emphasis on completion, and why 2 is such an awkward number—1 is normal and justifiable, while 2 makes it look like one is trying, but is incompetent to get more. It is better to look like one is not trying at all (1) or making progress (≥3) than trying & failing (2), and collecting all possibilities is the best of all because it means one is even more skillful at collecting than circumstances permit demonstrating. (Alexander regretted he had but one world to conquer.)

Because of the extreme poverty by modern standards, lack of tools, artisans, artistic genres etc, there just isn’t that much to collect. (Once the chief has signed your coconut which looks like a human face, what do you collect next?) One can easily “catch’em all”, and the culture is extremely static, sharply limiting any collecting behavior; any budding collectors or hoarders are stopped before they can manifest any extreme behavior. There is also the typical anti-market norms of egalitarian groups: mere crass commerce subverts the signaling of taste and is cheating (because enabling the merely powerful/wealthy) and coldly calculating rather than the kindness and generosity of gift-giving and reciprocity and credit—not that ‘markets’ are all that relevant in the first place. (‘Trading’, however, is fine because it keeps everything opaque and relies on taste.) Beyond this, any ‘collecting’ is on the higher plane of elite religion, politics, and warfare.

Consumer Revolution

In a modern country post-Gutenberg or post-Industrial-Revolution, however, the environment is ‘collectogenic’ and things are wildly different. Innovations like woodblock printing mean that a single press can run off thousands of different pieces of artwork a year, and their cost plummets to the point where an ordinary laborer could have a collection of hundreds, without any overlaps or coming close to exhausting the available supply, and any specific artwork may seem scarce (a given copy may be the only instance one ever sees) but actually be common as dirt over all of Europe, due to the unintuitiveness of mass manufacture, specialization, and exports. There is always another object to collect: it is pretty much impossible to think of instances where a collector has bought something and realized that that is it, he collected them all and in mint condition, it’s done, complete, finished. This lifts the ceiling on potential collecting behavior. Collecting is further reinforced by the intermittent arrival of rewards in the form of a missing item showing up, and by the monetary value fluctuating, adding addictive gambling-like mechanisms. (That one is likely at a net loss on the investment is ignored since one doesn’t mark-to-market or sell the bulk of the collection, and so it simply feels like winning occasionally as a reward for one’s persistence.) Further, one may be exposed to elite lifestyles and the elite use of collectibles and seek to emulate one’s betters.

Hoarding

Like the sudden surplus of calories, the sudden surplus of objects can be difficult to handle. The collecting behavior fails to fulfill its usual social function and ranges from normal (a minor diversion at most not interfering with normal behaviors) to dysfunctional (consuming noticeable fractions of discretionary wealth & time) to pathological (hoarders literally crushed under their ‘collections’): what strikes one person as just junk to be discarded if no use comes to mind, strikes another as a fascinating object to be collected, and strikes a third as rare treasure to be hoarded in their filthy pest-ridden house already groaning with trash. Males, who need it more, are worse hit; their greater systematizing, autistic traits, and greater variance in general all predispose them to collect. Collecting continues because it is no longer self-limiting or has natural endings. Children, exposed to the hyper-accelerated fashion of modern societies, latch onto the objects of their childhood only for them to keep mutating or be replaced by other fashions, and can never attain mastery or completion. This same fragmentation means that collecting ceases to impress many people, and involutes on itself; the pressures of conventional careers and children may suppress it but it can return if one is, say, a childless professional or one retires.

Consequences

Are collectors happier? It does not really seem that way. Does one enjoy collecting? Or, like an addict, does one just chase the high of the next hit, wanting but not liking it? When one watches the face of someone playing slot machines in a trance, “enjoyment” does not seem like the right word. Most collectors seem aware that they are on a hedonic treadmill where an acquisition brings them brief pleasure, but then they return to the baseline, and are uncomfortable and ambivalent when questioned about it, and have doubts about it.

Any specific kind of collecting is essentially arbitrary. There is nothing so ridiculous that someone has not fixated on it and started to ‘collect’ it. Why little cards of baseball statistics? Why Kool-Aid packets? Why wines? Why Bobblehead dolls? Why cast-iron doorstops in the shape of a dog? Why psychedelic drugs worth a dozen life sentences? Why Pez dispensers? There is probably ultimately no deeper reason than there is for all the sexual fetishes out there, or individual differences in preferences—random idiosyncratic noise & exposure to relevant stimuli at critical instants.

Collecting necessarily risks losing money: if you are buying it for the purpose of collecting, you must pay a premium over the utility price everyone else pays; and if you sell it onwards at a higher price to a fellow collector, who does he sell to? It’s tantamount to a Ponzi scheme; at best, on average one breaks even minus transaction costs if the bubble is stable. In practice, the books are balanced by most collectors simply writing off the costs. (Where did all that money I spent on Pokemon cards go, in the end, when I abandoned them years later and didn’t sell them for what they cost? It didn’t come back to me, but it went to the local dealer, Nintendo, Wizards of the Coast, the card manufacturer…)

But given the extreme wealth and size of modernity, collecting can achieve ‘lift off’ and become its own mini-economy, sucking in resources from the surrounding economy. Since human wealth and population continuously expand and any given collectible represents a minute fraction of expenditures (however much hardcore collectors might be spending) and can be classed as entertainment, it’s not too hard for a bubble to be stable or increase in total value indefinitely as new people enter.

Collecting Economy

This furnishes endless roles for parasites and commensual organisms and collectors-turned-pro and investors etc, and organizations can take over the care and feeding of a bubble or manufacture entirely new bubbles on demand. This is a challenging task, though, as they must do several mutually contradictory things: the house must turn a respectable profit and maintain hefty margins over the true intrinsic value of the collectibles, they must match supply and demand, they must maintain the illusions of scarcity & quality even when they are literally manufacturing millions of items off assembly lines in factories, they must maintain the illusion that collectors are exercising taste and making progress, must satisfy existing collectors while drawing in new ones at a sustainable rate to pay off the necessary losses, and must do all this while preserving the gift-norms even as that leads to severely-dysfunctional markets which do not admit of standard solutions such as auctions or raising prices.

Herding Cats

Matching supply & demand similar to the problem of the central banker trying to avoid both inflation and deflation while maintaining the credibility of his currency: too little demand/too much supply flooding the market can shatter the illusion that something is scarce (when Beanie Babies flood the market, too many people will wake up and say “this is just a plushie which costs $0.10 to make in China, and I don’t even like this shade of purple—what on earth am I doing paying $500 on eBay for this‽”), but too much demand can be bad if it sends prices soaring, threatening to shift too many things from gift-norms to market-norms and tainting the supposed essence with the grubby hands of commerce. A good collectible-manufacturer like Nike or Wizards of the Coast will surf waves of demand, titrating supply of new collectibles while deprecating old ones to encourage collectors to continually perceive a need for the new ones and gradually eat the losses on the old ones.

Manufacturing scarcity and quality follow time-honored tricks of marketing and logistics. Limit purchases by individual or location and try to avoid too-easy purchases or commodification (as ‘commodity’ the collectible is worthless!), allocate just a few to shops trickled out over time, manufacture as few as possible (it may seem like you are losing out on huge profits, but those are phantom profits), churn up the variety as much as possible with microscopic differences like serial numbers, invent new use-cases or categories or competitions. (Canceling or rebooting, like Magic: The Gathering or comic book universes or My Little Pony’s discrete “generations”, is a particularly extreme way of managing the backlog to enable introducing new collectibles.) Advertise heavily—if you saturate the media enough in the right ways, perhaps you can create a ‘brand’. Use unnecessarily expensive materials and methods: handmade, exotic materials like titanium or animal parts, arbitrary technical requirements, moral fashions like veganism or environmentalism. Maintain connections to the ostensible uses of collectibles—what do the sneakers hypebeasts have to do with Nike stunts like setting world records in sprinting, or paying athletes tens of millions of dollars to wear Nike logos? Nothing, but it feels connected. (Watches and sneakers are particularly pure collectible markets in which to observe these tricks.)

The need to avoid overt market-norms can be solved by foregoing maximum revenue and effectively hiring scalpers as middlemen to take the blame—Nike can say, “it’s a shame our new limited-edition sneaker sold out in 5 seconds to scalper bots and now you have to buy it at 3× on the secondary markets, but it’s not our fault! We love our fans and would never raise our prices 300% to make the market clear!” This is, of course, a lie; Nike knew perfectly well the sneakers were going to sell out, and that it could stop it by simply making more such sneakers or auctioning off the sneakers, and it may well be harvesting some of that “scalping markup” by expedients such as having “premium APIs” or secretly selling directly to retailers at a higher price. (Another example is the Ticketmaster scalping scandal: while the ‘public’ tickets for hot artists like Taylor Swift would sell out instantly, Ticketmaster would take blocks of tickets and sell them privately at closer to the true market price and kick back most of the sales to the artist, who could then tell the fans that “the evil scalpers bought all the tickets, sorry. Whaddaya gonna do, it’s all that horrible free market’s fault, no one could possibly have foreseen this.”)

Predictions

Some implications, which as far as I know have not been empirically checked yet:

  • ordinary collecting and elite collecting will be related but clearly distinguishable in terms of latent factors

  • collecting will increase as countries and individuals get wealthier; net financial return for average collector will be negative

  • an inverted U-curve of collecting behavior with life outcomes like fertility: more is good until it goes too far

    • external status penalties will exist: a collector doesn’t garner admiration monotonically
  • hoarders and collecting behaviors should correlate in families, decaying with additive distance

    • both will be highly polygenic (as complex psychological & behavioral traits), around the typical heritability of >50%
    • but, similar to religion/politics, the specific kind of collecting will be largely shared-environment + non-shared-environment idiosyncratic factors (ie. the amount of time spent on generic ‘collecting’ may be similar, but one will collect baseball cards and the other will collect vinyl records)
    • soft selection on collecting will be difficult or impossible to detect, and if it is, will be stabilizing selection and probably mostly through genetic correlations with outright mental illnesses

  1. One can see the bubbles of 2017 & 2021 (and to a lesser extent, colored coins in the 2013 altcoin bubble) as distributed attempts to bootstrap the pair of collecting mentality (as applied to digital artifacts) and monetization of parasocial relationships (in online communities & between artists/fans) into the vastly more lucrative high-end world, complete with strategic purchases of inflated NFT assets, co-option of high-end institutions like Sothebys & Christies, and attempts to manufacture intellectual pedigree for academic buyin.↩︎

  2. In developed countries like Japan or the USA, one can hardly go a block without hitting a hardcore collector case. I knew a gun nut who had amassed over 100 guns, which is not at all extreme among gun nuts, and he had difficulty securing them all in gun safes in his house. But where are the anthropologists noting cases of warriors or hunters who have amassed hundred of spears or bows that they never use? Doll/figure collecting is all the rage in Japan, but where is the equivalent of (itself only dating back to the 1600s) in the countless cultures which have dolls?↩︎