Magical contagion: The power of celebrity’s touch
Anthropologists and psychologists called it the “magical law of contagion,” or the belief that a person’s essence can be transmitted through objects they have touched.
In the 1920s, anthropologist James Frazer suggested the belief was common to “savage and barbarous society.” But, in a study published Monday in the journal PNAS, Yale University researchers argue that such magical thinking is alive and well here in the United States.
To prove their hypothesis, study authors analyzed several high-profile celebrity auctions: the estate of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Onassis; the estate of actress Marilyn Monroe and the estate of convicted swindler Bernard Madoff and his wife Ruth Madoff.
Sale items included clothing, artwork, tableware, jewelry, furniture and decorations, among other things.
Study authors George Newman, an assistant professor of organizational behavior, and Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science, found that items viewed as having come into close contact with well-liked famous people sold for more than low-contact items.
But they also reported a “marginal negative effect” on close-contact items that once belonged to Madoff, and no apparent effect on close-contact items from his wife.
To investigate further, the researchers conducted a survey of 435 adults, and asked them how much they would pay for a sweater owned by a famous person they admired, and one owned by a person they despised. They also asked whether their bid price would change if the sweater were sanitized.
The researchers found that when it came to well-liked celebrities, sanitizing the sweater resulted in a 14% drop in the respondent’s willingness to pay top dollar for the object. At the same time, however, sanitizing a sweater that belonged to a despised celebrity increased willingness to pay more by 17%, authors wrote.
“Consistent with the contagion hypothesis, physical contact appears to have real-world effect on how much people pay for celebrity objects,” the authors wrote. “Moreover, the present findings suggest that desires for positive celebrity memorabilia really do reflect a belief in contagion.”
The authors speculate that contagion thinking may have roots in human evolution and may have aided survival by tracking disease contaminants.
They point out too that contagion thinking elicits a very strong reaction when it comes to food.
“A single cockroach can ruin a large pot of soup,” the authors wrote.
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