Grasping for attention

Collectors come in all shapes and sizes. Some are relatively tame, such as the humble stamp collectors and comic book hunters. Others are harder to understand. For example, Michael Lewis has a handsome collection of Moist Towelettes. Sergei Frolov has over 150 Soviet Calculators. Most bizarrely though, for 27 years Graham Barker has been scouring the globe for only the finest examples of belly button fluff.

Why do these people waste so much of their time and money (and sanity) on amassing large numbers of similar items. Many ideas have been suggested over the years. Some have said its purely an investment, although this doesn’t explain why many people collect worthless items. Others have tried to give psychological explanations – collectors not  being shown enough love as a child, for example. All, though, fail to explain one trait a vast majority of collectors share. They are male.

When there is a marked difference in behaviour between the sexes, it is reasonable to suggest that the reason may be due to evolutionary reasons. For example, and in very general terms, it is beneficial for males to behave aggressively towards other males because they have been selected to fight  for access to females.

So what is the advantage to men in collecting? Well, a study, published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, may have the answer, albeit a counter intuitive one. Collecting is advantageous, the study says, because it is disadvantageous. Let me try to explain.

In evolutionary terms, females are on the look out for resources they can invest in producing children. In many species, the female has to find these resources themselves, but in humans much of it comes from the man. Men with more resources are seen as more attractive, which goes some way to explain how Hugh Hefner keeps his Playboy Bunnies happy.

dinosaur eggBecause resources are attractive, if you have so many resources you can afford to throw some away, you’ll be seen as even more attractive (this is known as the Handicap Principal). They are signalling to women that they can survive in this competitive world of ours, despite wasting money and time on a collection.  This is where the disadvantage turns into an advantage. This behaviour is catnip to the ladies.

To test whether the Handicap Principal really is the reason for collecting behaviour, the scientists collected data from Ebay about the buying and selling of fossilised dinosaur eggs – an apparently popular collectors item. The rarest and largest eggs were found to be the most desirable, as they were also the most valuable.

So if you’re looking to impress that special someone in your life, starting a collection could be a great way to get their attention. Id’ stay away from belly button fluff though.