Assignment four – How people accumulate stuff

I accumulate stuff both without realising and on purpose. I’m one of those people who has a good old tidy up and if you visit me that day you’d think I was incredibly well organised and ‘sorted’ but by the end of the week the spoils of my work would be scattered over the  dining room, creeping into the kitchen and as for the sitting area – get the picture? A lot of this is due to me being an artist and the need to be surrounded by the tools of my craft and just the need to create like breathing and eating. So most of my stuff is related to my life, I accumulate paper, new and recycled,  but I especially love brown paper/envelopes, graph paper, music scores and general paper ephemera. However fabric has been an obsession from a child, I’ll see a beautiful fabric design and have to have some, even if its only a small amount, I love to go to charity shops not looking for clothes but at the fabric – but I am particular – it has to be cotton linen or wool, a fabric snob perhaps.  The thing is I then find it really hard to use the fabric and I feel there must be something psychological to this!

my fabric stash photographed in 2006!  its no longer like this

For my next  assignment I’ve collected information on “How people accumulate stuff” by questioning through interviews.  To help direct me in in my questioning I did a mind map, and decided to keep it quite simple so I could use it when questioning and not be so rigid with the questions, this is called a semi-structured interview.

My first opportunity to ask questions came about quite by chance last Saturday when I met up with a group of ladies I’d not met before, I  started the conversation by talking about how I accumulate stuff and  the conversation got going really well and at this point I asked if anyone would mind if I took notes  as this was an area that really interested me.

To record their thoughts I used mind maps as they help my brain to see things easily and I can then follow on from a line of thought with another branch. I have looked at other service design tools but for this process I needed to make notes quickly and am comfortable using this tool. Once started I let the conversation flow and didn’t stick rigidly to a set of questions.

Women – Over 30’s

Moira – Designer and Crafter

Accumulating is done through collecting and her love for blue and white pottery, which she was first introduced to in the late 70’s as a young girl when visiting a gallery.  There was something about a plate she saw and she had to buy it.  She returned a year later and had to buy another piece.  From then the love of blue and white pottery and china has grown and if she is out and about will look out for more.  Charity shops are always a good source and regardless of chips and cracks if she loves it, she’ll buy it. It makes it more appealing if items can be bought cheaply and the collection is not seen as an investment but one to be looked at and give pleasure.  They are displayed on a dresser and the extra pottery/china is stored in the loft and occasionally changed.  She feels no guilt at all from having accumulated these items and would never part with them. As a final question I asked what she would save if there was a fire, not including people and pets, her immediate response were her photographs.

Dawn – Teacher

My second interviewee showed  lots of  accumulating – the first being the love of all things African which started by seeing books, magazines and fabrics from Africa, particularly the Masai people and more generally the dress and jewellery of the tribes  – this prompted a holiday to South Africa and all the items are treasured and the books looked at often.  The holiday memories hold lots of emotion too.  Dawn also accumulates childrens’ books and at this point it was quite difficult for her to talk  as it bought back memories of her childhood.  Her Mum didn’t save anything and she mentioned things which I wont talk about here as they were quite personal, I did ask if she was willing to continue talking and she was. As a child the library was the only source of books available to her and now collects them as she loves the illustrations and pictures.  Beach detritus is something which is continually being collected especially driftwood and metal as she loves the textures and has it on display through out her house.  I asked what her husband thought of her accumulating things all she said was that he trips up over it! She mentioned that she sometimes feels weighed down by all the things she has, as her home is small and does feel a certain amount of guilt that it takes up space and it has to be looked after but I could see that her collecting gives her pleasure.  Her sister also collects. As a final question I asked what she would save if her house was on fire, after a few seconds her response was her Dads bonnet, jacket and ring and any photos she could get her hands on.

Late teens early 20’s

Maria – Nutrition student

Doesn’t accumulate at all, the only exception are things which hold extreme emotional ties, things that her dad gave her before he died and special gifts from her mum.  Most of her belongings are items she has chosen and will easily get rid through throwing away or through selling on Ebay.  She had thought of donating to charity but gives the majority of items to her friends.  She impulse buys but the majority of her money is spent on good quality food.  She feels no obligation to keep gifts and gives presents she doesn’t like as presents to other people and she doesn’t feel people should keep her gifts unless she has spent time creating them.  She only keeps what she knows she’ll use.

Jemma – Speech and language student

Jemma accumulates clothes! She has wardrobes full.  She buys them in high street shops e.g. Topshop, M and S and New Look or they are given as gifts.  She buys clothes if she wants them but never because she needs something and she never impulse buys. She thinks its good to accumulate clothes because fashion comes round again and she might need them in the future and she doesn’t want to be wasteful, however if she has totally finished with something she will give the item to a charity shop, she would never think of having a car boot sale or selling on Ebay. If an item is ripped she will throw it away, however she has started a dress making course and is now recycling fabric and cloth to make something else.  She doesn’t feel the need to keep something some one has given her although it depends on who gave it – if her granny had given the item she couldn’t give this away but if it was one of her aunties she wouldn’t feel obligated to keep it.  She doesn’t think someone should keep something she gave them but it does depend what it was – if it was hand made and something she had spent time making then she would be upset if they didn’t keep it.  If it was something she had bought then she wouldn’t be offended.  General ephemera, cinema, train tickets etc are easy for her to throw away.

Alison – Psychology student

Alison also accumulates clothes,  which she buys from charity shops if they are vintage, from high street shops e.g. Urban Outfitters and  Topshop and also keeps clothes that have been given to her which are also vintage. She keeps the clothes because she doesn’t like throwing things away, she likes to look at them and she just likes having them.  She has more than enough clothes but still feels a need to keep them all and buy more and often feels she doesn’t have anything to wear. Alison is emotionally attached to quite a few of the items as they were given as gifts, they are vintage clothes a  “Going Away outfit” from the 60’s and scarfs.  Alison is an impulse buyer and gets a huge rush when buying and often regrets buying.  She thinks that she’ll keep all these clothes whilst a student but once she has her own home and job will buy more classic items which will last.  If she does want to get rid of anything she will give them to friends or charity and has thought about selling at car boot sales and Ebay but has never got around to it.  Other items which she has accumulated over the years are items associated with good memories e.g. T in the Park tickets, cinema tickets, restaurant cards etc.  Stationary is something she goes out in search of and loves buying notebooks which she fills like a journal, she has a notebook for money spent, a notebook for things to do, a notebook of a wish list and two diaries one for Uni things and one for personal things – here she says she thinks she is quite obsessive! She admits (through laughter) that in the last year she has bought four kingsize duvet covers and has also been given some from her mum. She wont part with these until they look shabby.  Her ambition is to collect vintage china.

Male over 20

John – Store manager

John does not accumulate as he “doesn’t see the point of having stuff which keeps you tied down as its a hassle if you have to move home”.  His only possessions are the clothes he wears from day to day, his car, computer and X Box. He prefers people to things and the only nice things he buys he gives to his girlfriend.  However he has realised that he does collect digital media in the form of film and music.

below are some of the mind maps I created


From pottery to clothes, notebooks to driftwood its seems that accumulating stuff has more to it than it would seem  than simply storing items in a drawer out of sight where no one can see them.  From interviews I carried out over a week I realised that emotional attachment to items has a huge effect on us.  Its what stops us from living in a minimalistic way.  Speaking to a variety of people – age, background and gender there was a distinct difference between the women. The students all accumulated clothes whether through their own buying needs, gifts or from friends.  The late teens early 20’s is an important age, having left home and a time for making their mark on the world, a lot of this is done through the image they portray through hair styles, makeup and clothing and in this throw away society it could be easy to discard things however my younger interviewees all had an emotional attachment to items that had come from those they were close to.  Only one of my students collected something other than and as well as clothes and admitted herself that she was bordering upon obsessive however keeping and using the items gave her pleasure, kept her organised (which was very important in her day to day life) and had lovely memories attached.

There was a huge similarity with my over 30’s women interviewees, neither mentioned clothes but both mentioned items they loved to collect, even though space was an issue.  Neither collected for monetary gain only for the pleasure this collecting gave.  It was interesting that the collecting was associated with childhood/late teens, the pottery had a huge effect on Moira as a teenager and with Dawn the lack of collecting as a child almost encouraged her to collect as an adult because she could, as it does her sister. Guilt was a mixed thing and the only way it was attached to the accumulation of stuff was because of the space it takes up.

I only interviewed one male aged 27 and his response was quite different, he sees no need at all to collect and accumulate stuff – feeling it would weigh him down.  He doesn’t have anything with which he is emotionally attached too either. Whilst we were chatting though he realised that he did accumulate films and music both digitally and these are all contained on his computer which he can easily lift and take with him where ever he moves to.  He has enough clothing to see him through different occasions but not so much that the stuff is built into an accumulation. If he has finished with something he would throw it away. Stuff just isn’t important to him.

Although not mentioned in the interviews my husband is the same, he doesn’t see the need to accumulate stuff either.  The most important thing to him are the memories he has collected over the years. Doing things is more important to him, when the children were little he always made a point of spending time with them, reading, playing, talking and day trips at weekends. He has what he needs and never impulse buys.  He too has clothes for any occasion he needs to attend and has his collection of vinyl albums from his teens and twenties, his golf clubs and his history reference books  – he says the only thing he would save in a fire would be me!

Whilst researching this subject I became aware of the psychology surrounding collecting and hoarding and having had experience of someone with OCD this was of interest to me.  According to Elliot (2009) there are 5 features to the nature of excessive (compulsive) hoarding and accumulating stuff ‘excessive acquisition of large numbers of unnecessary and often worthless objects or items; apparently irrational, emotional attachments to the objects; vigilant protection of the collection; cluttered living conditions; emotional and behavioural resistance to discarding the objects/items’.  These in turn have a knock on effect, creating day to day problems either with those in the home or for neighbours. The hoarders realise what they are doing and are willing to have counselling but cannot give up their collection or see the need for medication. So where is the line between hoarding and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD often includes repetitive behaviour which causes distress ( Rachman and de Silva, 2009) and along with excessive hoarders they feel the need to carry out these actions. Those with OCD often know the distress they are causing to both others and themselves whereas hoarders are not aware of distress they may cause, for them hoarding gives them a positive or neutral feeling.  Differences can be seen in the table below taken from Behaviour research and therapy 47(6), 520 -522. Separating hoarding from OCD, by Elliott 2009

Table 1. Differentiating excessive hoarding from OCD.

Treatment response Excessive hoarding unresponsive to traditional CBT or medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Demographic distribution Excessive hoarding far more common than OCD ([Kessler et al., 2005][Samuels et al., 2008] and [Tolin et al., 2008]).
Insight/complaints Excessive hoarders seldom complain about their ‘problem’, rarely seek treatment and have limited ‘insight.’
Age at which seek treatment People with OCD appear earlier for treatment.
Distress OCD causes primary distress; the distress associated with excessive hoarding is secondary and arises from complaints made by others.
Purpose The purpose of OCD compulsions is to reduce threat and/or anxiety; multiple reasons for excessive hoarding including taking advantage of opportunities to add to one’s collection.
Emotions OCD compulsions are emotionally negative; excessive hoarding is emotionally positive or neutral.
Stability of problem Hoarding is extraordinarily stable; OCD problems show variability over time.
Cognitive analyses Cognitive analysis of OCD centres on appraisals of intrusive thoughts. No similar conceptualization for excessive hoarding.
Over-inclusiveness Verbal reports of people with excessive hoarding tend to be over-inclusive.
Attachment/sentimentality People with excessive hoarding often have overgeneral and overdeveloped ideas regarding attachment to their possessions.

I believe the majority of people do accumulate to some extent, whether we realise it or not. Thankfully none of those I interviewed are in either of the above categories and their accumulation of stuff was for total pleasure and enjoyment not impacting on anyone to any great extent and don’t we all have that kitchen drawer where the old batteries, the double glazing window keys, case padlocks and charity brooches are stored along with receipts we keep just incase.

Elliott., 2009. Separating hoarding from OCD.  Behaviour research and therapy 47(6), 520 -522

Rachman, S.,  and de Silva, P., (2009). Obsessive-compulsive disorder: The facts (Revised 4th ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press ).


The subject of my assignment fascinated me but interviewing strangers has not be my favourite thing to do, Kirtsy Walk you’re job is safe.  I was nervous although it did break the ice and most people do love to talk.  I do believe that if I had been allowed to interview people I know, family, friends and friends of Jim  I wouldn’t have been so hesitant in getting started. I also think that being more relaxed I could have taken more time and used the service design tools which are new to me.



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