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Why People Pay Fortunes For Celebrity Memorabilia

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Two theories on why physical contact affects an object’s value.

michaelgrootObjects that belonged to famous personalities are very wanted. People pay incredibly high prices to obtain them. From Scarlett Johansson’s dirty tissue to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ jacket; fans are willing to pay fortunes for a piece of their idols. But why?

Is it that the objects remind people of their idol and make them feel her or his presence in their life? Is the memory of that person revived every time they see the object and even more if they hold it and touch it? Has imagination part in this process by reproposing the image of the beloved and associated feelings?

Research suggests that there’s something else to it. An article by Newman and Bloom from the School of Management-Organizational Behavior and the Department of Psychology of Yale University that was just published in PNAS suggests another, unexpected, explanation.

The amount of physical contact

The researchers examined data from estate auctions of two well-liked celebrities (John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe) and of a disliked one (Bernard Madoff). They found that the price that a collector was willing to pay for an object was influenced by the estimated amount of physical contact that the celebrity had with it. So for admired individuals, the more the object was thought to have been touched by him or her the higher its value in the eye of the collector; on the other hand, for a disliked celebrity the perceived contact with an object slightly decreased its value.

Is it magical contagion…

The scientists prove that the collectors believe in “magical contagion”, a well-known psychological phenomenon that is described as a form of magical thinking according to which people are convinced that the immaterial qualities of a person can be passed to an object just by touching and holding it. It’s as if the object acquires some of the personality traits of its owner. In accordance to this, if the object (for example a sweater) was sterilized before the auction, collectors would pay significantly less for it if it belonged to an admired celebrity and significantly more if it was owned by a negative one.

The phenomenon of contagion is common in primitive societies, and it’s quite surprising to recognize its existence today in our society. Yet, as the researchers mention, their results find support also in other recent studies that report the presence of contagion beliefs among college students and adults in western societies. The belief in contagion seems in fact to be a general phenomenon that influences the value people attribute to things in everyday life.

…or another more mundane explanation?

I belief there is another possible explanation why physical contact affects an object’s value that doesn’t call for ‘magic’. An object that was extensively touched and not washed, like a sweater as in the study, probably carries some ‘material’ qualities of its owner, like sweat and skin residues: as such it becomes a sort of reliquiae, almost an actual piece of that person. Owning it straight from the person who had it and used it increases the sentiment of closeness to him or her. It makes his or her presence more real, it’s in a way like touching and holding that person. Similarly, some like to keep a tuft of hair of a beloved one to renew the physical contact and a more vivid memory of the person and of the feelings that he or she inspired. Nothing magical, just a way to guard certain emotions, defeat loneliness, and ultimately trying to preserve life.

In conclusion the doubt remains: is contagion magical and does it bestow on an object the incorporeal essence of its owner, or is it just a material affair?


Photo: Flickr, Party Stuff by CS

Newman, G., & Bloom, P. (2014). Physical contact influences how much people pay at celebrity auctions Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1313637111

celebrity’s memorabilia, fans, auction, magical contagion, physical contact

This post was written by Agnese Mariotti:
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