Photo: Roy Luck/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Breaking Up (with Stuff) is Hard to Do: Are We Biologically Predisposed to Collect Stuff?

Mary Poffenroth, , UCS | December 2, 2016, 3:14 pm EDT
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Have you ever wondered why we enjoy stuff so much? We definitely enjoy buying it. Depending on what it is, we also enjoy talking about it. We research it, we browse for it, and we feel triumphant when we find that perfect something. But why?

Some of our joy is coming from our biological need to survive. Collecting behavior, sometimes referred to as caching, storing or hoarding depending on the species, is commonplace in normal humans as well as many other vertebrates. Of course, as with almost anything human, things can go to the extreme and become pathological. Out of control collecting can become deleterious if it has significant negative effects for the collector and their environment, both in the immediate and greater sense of the word.

But a pathological hoarder isn’t the only one with the impulse to find and collect.

Many animals store things for later—humans are no exception

In nature, we see that species such as chipmunks and woodpeckers regularly store food for later. This behavior anticipates need and allows a species to stock up during times of feast and retrieve during times of famine. But what about non-food items that are being collected and stored? Crows commonly cache shiny objects such as aluminum foil and in a classic 1972 study Hammer found that hamsters actually preferred to collect and store glass beads over food. Even though these objects have no clear benefit to the immediate physiological survival of the individual, they are still sought after and stored.

It’s easy to observe this non-pathological collecting behavior in ourselves as well. Art, electronics, books, and collectibles of all kinds cannot be explained by simple anticipated need. Even though nearly all of us have been guilty of procuring items not essential to life, not much research has been done into the why. However, answers may lie within the emotional and reward centers of the brain.

Our brains reward collecting behaviors

Although there is no current universal agreement on every brain structure comprising the functional concept we call the limbic system, most will agree that at minimum it is associated with the hippocampus (which along with the fornix is shown in blue), the amygdala (shown in green), and the hypothalamus (shown in red). Creative commons license.

Although there is no current universal agreement on every brain structure comprising the functional concept we call the limbic system, most will agree that at minimum it is associated with the hippocampus (which along with the fornix is shown in blue), the amygdala (shown in green), and the hypothalamus (shown in red). Graphic: lifesciencedb/CC BY-SA 2.1 JP (Wikimedia)

The set of brain structures we collectively call the limbic system influences our emotions and motivations, while the mesolimbic pathway is all about rewards. For example, if what we have collected is met with a significant reward, let’s say social validation, along with minimal negative consequences, then the modulating system will continue to support the desire to collect those items. We feel good when we shop and we feel even better when other people admire our stuff. The more we shop, the more we want.

Culture also has a huge impact on this reward-based behavior. American culture, for example, highly values uniqueness and individuality. One way to communicate this highly coveted trait to others is through our material possessions, thus reinforcing the reward for having the newest finery.

Just recently, as I was exiting off Oakland’s 580 freeway, a radio ad came on for a local jewelry store touting the merits of their unique engagement rings. No bride wants to have the same wedding ring as thousands of other brides. Show your love and make your bride feel special with our small batch designer wedding rings. I immediately thought to myself how absurd that was. Could you tell the difference between the wedding rings of your friends, let alone strangers and acquaintances? I couldn’t.

Recognizing the environmental impacts of our need for stuff

The drive for stuff is intensely powerful because it can incorporate so many of our emotions, like pleasure, fear, happiness and sadness, as well as tapping into our most basic drives for sex, dominance, and taking care of those we love. Luckily, we as humans have the power to understand the biological basis for our desires as well as the fortitude to change when we see the damaging consequences of our actions. I would argue that nearly all of our current large scale environmental problems can be tied back to our stuff in one way or another. What if we could start impacting huge issues like waste, deforestation, and pollution by simply observing our reactions and changing our relationship with stuff?

I have recently started a practice of using a like, lust, love scale when thinking about whether or not to purchase a new item. If I’m not absolutely sure I love it, I will wait 24 hours and see if I feel the same way tomorrow. If my desire was merely a lukewarm like or searing hot lust seeped in that day’s emotions, I will not purchase it. If I find that even after 24 hours I still want, need, or love the thing and I’m confident that the initial emotional charge has worn off, only then will I go ahead and purchase. This strategy does not apply to wine and chocolate: those are always on the essential for survival list. It may seem like a tiny change, but it can have significant impact if you make it part of your shopping practices.

Artist: Sarah Lazarovic.

Artist: Sarah Lazarovic. From A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy.

Another way of curbing the negative effects of our consuming is employing Sarah Lazarovic’s Buyerarchy of Needs. Where we only “buy new” as a last resort. Using these two easy methods could mean a huge decrease in your personal consumption of goods, resulting in cost savings and decreased fossil fuel depletion.

Wait, what? How did fossil fuels get into this conversation? Well, think about all the things we buy that are either made of plastic or at minimum are packaged in plastic. Most plastics are based on the carbon atom and utilize crude oil or natural gas as raw materials. Tack on the oil and gas used to transport your new thing from where it was produced, to the store, then to your home, and each new item has a distinct fossil fuel footprint.

This holiday season, you can make an impact

With the winter holidays upon us, it can be overwhelming to find the perfect token of appreciation for your loved ones that is memorable, environmentally friendly, and cost effective. Many times we bend under the gifting pressure and just grab the nearest decorative basket of bath products or aftershave. In recent years I have started giving experiences in lieu of physical gifts to people in my life. Experiences can be incredibly meaningful and many times super cheap. It can be simple, say for instance a handmade coupon good for a picnic in the park or something more elaborate like show tickets or a fully planned evening out. I know more than a few friends that are new parents that would kill for a gift of “one night free babysitting by me”. These gifts showcase your personality while making the receiver feel deeply special and appreciated. Which is really the entire point of gift giving, isn’t it?


Bio: Mary Poffenroth, a first generation college student who became a university biology lecturer in 2007, continues to broadened her reach of science engagement through creating video with TEDed, writing for Science Magazine, hosting live shows with Nerd Nite, and releasing a science communication book with Cognella Academic Publishing. In 2009 she created an environmental student volunteer program that to date has donated over 15,000 work hours to local non-profit organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information on this topic or the author, please see  or

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