Friday Weird Science: Why do we collect dinosaur eggs? To woo the ladies of course!

Aug 03 2012 Published by under Friday Weird Science

Preliminary note: When I look at some of these papers, I start out amused. Then I gradually get more and more annoyed. Who the HECK let this one past any kind of preliminary review?! And how come THIS got published when my perfectly decent study that actually addresses a hypothesis that makes rational sense came back with major revisions?! HUH?!?!?

*cough* Anyway.

Did you collect things as a kid? I know I did. Most of the kids I knew did. One girl had all the American Girl dolls, one kid collected baseball cards, a boy collected matchbox cars, and I collected rocks. What? Nothing wrong with rocks! They are cheap, it's hard to find cool ones, and if you go for the smaller sizes they don't take up much space. I do not regret my rock-spent youth.

But did you ever pause to wonder why we collect things? Well, if you haven't, I assure you that other people have. And the answers they come up with will surprise you. First, because of course they involve sex, and secondly, because they don't make any sense.

Apostolou, M. "Why men collect things? A case study of fossilised dinosaur eggs" Journal of Economic Psychology, 2011.


(source)

So, collecting things. Specifically, collecting things that have no real purpose in your life other than to give you pleasure. Things like coins, baseball cards, Lisa Frank stickers, or, you know, dinosaur eggs. Why do we do it? These habits can become costly, and they take up a lot of time. Some of them even entail risk (the risk, for example, of someone stealing your expensive statuary, or of a card, say, losing value when people find out the athlete has been doping).

So why do it? There's got to be a hypothesis for this. As a matter of fact there have been a lot of hypotheses, ranging from legitimizing your leisure time, to material goods standing in for lack of love in your life, to my personal favorite, an anal-erotic fixation during psychosexual development (you can thank your anus for your dreamcatcher collection! Courtesy of psychoanalysis, of course).

But what if it was all to impress the ladies? That was what this author hypothesized. The rationale was like this: most collectors are men. Collecting rare items is difficult and represents a lot of effort and time, and could thus be an honest signal of reproduction. Thus, when women seek mates (or, in this author's view, when the parents, and particularly fathers, of women seek mates for the woman), they would like a guy who collects stuff, showing a hardworking nature and an ability to collect resources to support the woman and potential children. So...men collect things because it means they will get mates.

To test this, the author decided to work with a rare collectible, something that required a lot of effort to collect: dinosaur eggs. Apparently, you can find these on eBay (and yes, you can. I just looked). He collected information on 177 eggs, from either raptors or hadrosaurs, with regard to size, shape, and the number of pictures (one wonders if this guy was a fossil egg collector himself, but apparently not).

He then took the pictures of the eggs and showed them to 20 undergrads (12 male, 8 female). He asked them what they thought of the eggs. The ones that were most complete and roundest won out for being the most 'aesthetically pleasing'.

Finally, he took the final selling prices of the eggs. Raptors, being more rare, sold for a lot more than hadrosaurs (though I also have to wonder, is this legal? I mean...is it?). Nicer looking eggs (more symmetrical) made more money.

From all of this data, the author concludes that nicer looking eggs made more money, the desirability of the eggs was related to rarity, size, and beauty, and then hypothesizes that men collect things to gain a reproductive advantage.

...what?

...WHAT?

Ok, I'll be honest. Maybe I'm missing the point here. I guess it's basic marketing research to note that prettier, rarer eggs make more money, but HOW does this relate to any reproductive advantages at all?! HOW does the study as described provide any basis for the hypothesis of the reproductive advantage?! It's like the whole of this study was:

1. collecting is a dude thing
2. the dude thing must be sexual
3. DINOSAUR EGGS
4.
5. ...PROFIT.

Not only that, it appears that most of the ideas behind how and why people collect things are...flawed. Really, really flawed. For example, the citation showing that men collect things more than women. I thought that was a bit odd to begin with, and then I realized WHY: the definition of "collecting". The authors of that study limited collectables to things that had no every day value. So baseball cards are in, fine china is out. This clearly discounts a LOT of the items that people collect, including
books, DVDs, clothing, shoes, accessories, etc, etc. I think the limitation on this definition is ridiculous. Just because it's got a use doesn't mean you don't collect it! I collect coffee mugs. I have a lot of nice ones. They often have caffeine molecules on them. And I drink coffee from them...so I guess that means I don't collect them after all?!

And if you limit the definition to such a limited form...you discount a lot of women. Sure I'll buy that far more men than women collect baseball cards. Fine. But what about fine china with little kittens on it? What about Lisa Frank stationary? What about SHOES? Ask about those and I bet your gender ratio is going to start to look a lot more even.

The author also cites a study that conspicuous consumption is a measure of your ability to gather resources...but surely you're not going to say that MEN do all the conspicuous consumption?

And explaining the motives behind collection as being an honest reproductive signal is a pretty amazingly far stretch to me. After all, how many men REALLY think that a woman (or that woman's dad, as this author hypothesizes) is going to be impressed by his baseball card collection? Men who collect baseball cards collect them because they like them, not because they think someone will be impressed. If they wanted to show their resource gathering abilities, there are lots of better ways: owning a house, having a good job, stockpiling food against the zombie apocalypse...lots of options.

The author also concludes that, because of the sexual competition nature of collecting, marketers of collectables should focus on men only. This is both ridiculous (because the sexual competition idea is ridiculous), and terrible marketing sense. Even IF you think men are more likely to be interested, ignoring 50% of the population as a potential audience seems like a terrible business decision (oh wait, Dr. Pepper 10 exists. Never mind).

So, does this study provide a logical background for the hypothesis? Not really. Does the study TEST said hypothesis? Nope. Does the study conclude confirmation of the hypothesis from the results: again, no, the study itself appears to be...kind of silly. But all that doesn't matter! What does matter is that if you want to win a LADY by impressing her father, you need to collect some DINOSAUR EGGS!!! Get on it, guys, those things are expensive.

But you know what? I've also got a better idea. Why do people collect things? Well, maybe it's a combination of factors: initial interest (say, you enjoy baseball), some effort (you get some cards, it's cool to have the stats, you start looking for more), REWARD (you make friends with other collectors! You go to shows where people show off their cards and look at rare ones! You feel the thrill of the chase and the satisfaction of getting something you've been wanting!), and reinforcement of the behavior (you've got friends in the collecting game now, you talk with each other and get lots of benefits out of it). This could work for any kind of collectible, though the rewards and reinforcements do not always have to be social.

But no, it's all about getting those dinosaur eggs to impress the ladies. I mean, just look at 'em up there. All round and shiny. I'm impressed. Anyone else?

Menelaos Apostolou (2011). Why men collect things? A case study of fossilised dinosaur eggs Journal of Economic Psychology, 32, 410-417 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2011.02.013

20 responses so far

  • Thomas says:

    Funny article, ridiculous hypothesis. Re: marketing to a gender only, it reminded me of the Coke Zero/Diet Coke thing, where the drinks are almost identical but the first is marketed at men and the latter at women

  • Neuroskeptic says:

    "Hey, do you want to come up and see my collection of unused condoms?"

  • Neuroskeptic says:

    Thomas: Coke Zero tastes a lot better though.

    Probably the added testosterone!

    No but seriously, it does taste pretty different.

  • arlenna says:

    It reminds me of this:

    http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/math-paper-retracted-because-it-contains-no-scientific-content/

    It sounds like a paper generated by an automatic hypothesis/conclusion machine!

  • arlenna says:

    Here's the machine linked in that article:

    http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/

    it's hilarious!!!

  • Dr Mukhopadhyay says:

    "Sure I'll buy that far more women than men collect baseball cards."

    I think you meant it the other way round?

    In my native country (India), the father of the woman usually doesn't wish to see the dinosaur egg collection of the prospective bridegroom -- he just asks for the salary slips and bank statements instead!

    • scicurious says:

      Sorry, yes, other way round. Fixed.

      And yeah, it completely discounts the fact that WOMEN COLLECT THINGS TOO. Um, hello? Me and my collection of things are right over here!!!

  • That's a pretty special study right there. As an entomologist who collects insects as part of my job, I feel it's safe to say this is not the reason my wife agreed to marry me (although I've never explicitly asked I suppose).

    Not that I buy into such a crazy idea, but I could almost see collecting things as a display of fitness, i.e. the collector has expendable income (which some people may consider advantageous in a relationship) that they can spend on amassing their collections, including those rare and expensive dinosaur eggs. Then again, it could all just be a big pile of coprolite...

  • Amanda says:

    Wow, really kind of a ridiculous step of conclusions - and the experimental design itself seems fairly lacking in rigour. And I won't deny about 1/3 of the way through the post I found myself thinking, so why do I collect rocks then (as a woman)?

    I can see the idea of collecting to impress a mate, given the behaviour observed in many birds and other animals, but the experiment itself doesn't appear to HONESTLY prove it --- too many leaps of faith.

    Maybe this was all a ploy to use grant money to improve someone's collection :P Naw. It was about picking up women.

  • Sue W says:

    I think one might have an easier time making the case that collecting SHOES is some kind of perverted sex-related urge that cannot be resisted by many women (and which most men find baffling).

  • Pascale says:

    I kept waiting to find out that women looked at the eggs and wanted to do the dude collecting them. THAT would have actually examined the hypothesis.

    Seriously, my hubby's collection of baseball memorabilia did not attract me. Instead, I knew I had to come up with a way to keep it out of our living room. And some of it was really cool, too. This is how our sports bar/media room came to be.

    Also, anyone who thinks women do not collect just needs to consider Beany Babies and Precious Moments. Think men drove those bubbles?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Having attended various speciality collector shows, to help my wife set up her booth, my impression is that there are a heck of a lot of female collectors.

  • anon says:

    How can someone draw such a fucken blank when it comes to collecting stuff for profit? Did the author not think of dolls? Jewelry? Antiques? Know anyone with a doll collection? And no, I'm not talking American girls or hummels (which can also fetch a big price; and these aren't exactly dolls). Anything from Star Wars figures to vintage barbie dolls. Look it up. Like everyone else here, it's doubtful this behavior is limited to men.

    Collector behavior (if you can call it that) is kind of interesting. Are humans the only species that do this? And why is this behavior more prevalent in some people than in others? Almost like an addiction in some cases. That manuscript should have gone to the trash can - not even a "nice try".

  • E. Manhattan says:

    This was written for, and published in, a psychology journal. And we all know how carefully the majority of psychologists follow the scientific method.

    Remember the Repressed Memory movement that devastated so many lives? Or the "satanists running child care centers" scandal which was manufactured by the interviewing psychologists who lead children into making up ridiculous witch stories? Interviews which were recorded so that later observers could show how the psychologists, not the children, invented the stories?

    This is a typical example of how methodological errors permeate the field of psychological research. The few researchers who actually understand how science works are at a severe disadvantage, since studies like this have made the whole field seem laughable to non-psychologists.

    • Scicurious says:

      I think that's a too harsh. The study is acrap and there's no doubt about that, but not all psychology studies are the same. There are many good psychology studies out there. This just isn't one of them.

  • [...] shares a weird paper which posits that men collect things to impress the opposite sex! As someone who collects insects for a living, I can attest that I am not followed by groupies on a [...]

  • Oh, those crazy evolutionary psychologists. I know they're not all doing research like this, but it seems to be the average condition.

  • Andreas Johansson says:

    I'm usually told my collections (books, wargaming figures, coffee mugs) scare women away ...

    (I don't have a coffee mug with a caffeine molecule design on it, however. This may have to be rectified.)

  • Brian says:

    FYI, in the first few posts that mentioned Diet Coke vs. Coke Zero I had wondered myself, I mean they both have 0 calories. Turns out Diet Coke has a different formula than original Coke. Coke Zero is supposed to be "true" diet Coke.

Leave a Reply


7 − = four