A new Yale study investigated why people would pay exorbitant sums of money for Beyoncé’s boots or Oprah’s overcoat.
According to law of contagion, the essence of someone can be transferred by touch to another object, as demonstrated by the high value people place on of celebrity memorabilia. While a large body of previous research demonstrated this theory in laboratory settings, there had been no verification in the field.
Yale psychologist Paul Bloom and professor at the School of Management George Newman looked at data from real-world estate auctions and found the amount of contact a celebrity had with the object correlated with the value the item received at auction. The research is part of a growing body of evidence that suggests that contagion beliefs — ungrounded in any physical process — can exert significant influence on actual decision making.
“We’ve done a bunch of lab studies looking at [contagion beliefs] and that was the motivation for this study,” Newman said. “It was surprising or exciting to find similar types of effects in actual auction behavior.”
The study examined data from the celebrity estate auctions of John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Bernard Madoff. Participants — uninformed about the hypothesis of the study — rated the amount of physical contact they thought each item auctioned had with its former owner. Newman and Bloom found that in the cases of Kennedy and Monroe, greater rating of physical contact positively correlated with higher final bids for the items. However, in the case of the Madoff auction, the correlation was reversed.
In the second part of the study, the researchers found that valuations of celebrity memorabilia could not be explained simply by association, as a sterilized sweater of a beloved celebrity was valued less than an unsterilized sweater.
The study demonstrated that bidders believed the positive essence of Kennedy and Monroe and the negative essence of Madoff were preserved in their possessions.
Nathan Novemsky, a professor at the Yale School of Management unaffiliated with the study, said the study fits into a growing body of evidence that contagion beliefs are common.
“If a Gucci bag is made in the original factory in France, or somehow physical elements of it are related to factory in France versus some factory in South Carolina, people find the essence of Gucci is more in that first bag than in the second.” Novemsky said. “The challenge for marketers then is how to transfer that essence.”
Writing on magical thinking can be traced back to the early 20th century, Newman said, when anthropologist James Frazier first proposed the idea that people may believe the essence of an object can be transferred by contact. Newman said the study lends credence to Frazier’s original model.
Matthew Hutson, a science journalist and author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking,” said auction houses should take note of contagion beliefs, as the houses consistently misvalued the final bids for each item. Hutson said he was surprised the contagion effect was not even greater.
“I would have expected objects that Bernie Madoff had handled excessively would have been even more devalued and objects that JFK had used to be even more affected,” Hutson said.
The study appears in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.