In the large market for celebrity memorabilia, common personal items such as clothing and furniture can sell for tens of thousands of dollars or more at auction. How much a collector is willing to pay for these items is influenced by the amount of physical contact the celebrity owner had with the object, according to a new study by George Newman, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale SOM, and Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University.
In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors found that collectors are willing to pay more for items that they believe were in close contact with beloved celebrities than low-contact items, while high-contact items owned by infamous celebrities bring lower auction prices.
The authors demonstrate that the findings reflect a belief in contagion, a form of magical thinking in which people believe that a person’s immaterial qualities or essence can be transferred to an object through physical contact.
“What we observe is more than a collector simply believing that an object that has been touched more frequently by a celebrity has a stronger association with that person,” says Newman. “It’s a deeper belief in contagion—that the essence of the celebrity has been transmitted to the object.”
Newman and Bloom analyzed data from three high-profile celebrity auctions: the estate auction of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Onassis, the estate auction of Marilyn Monroe, and the estate auction of Bernard Madoff and Ruth Madoff. They found that items that had been in close contact with well-liked celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and JFK sold for higher prices than low-contact items, while high-contact personal items from Bernard Madoff had a negative effect on auction prices. Physical contact had no effect on prices for items owned by Ruth Madoff, who is viewed as neither positive nor negative.
To study their contagion hypothesis further, Newman and Bloom conducted an experiment in which they asked participants how much they would be willing to bid on a sweater that belonged to a famous person whom they admired or to a famous person whom they despised. They then asked if the bid would change if the sweater were manipulated in a number of ways, including through sterilization.
Participants reported that they would pay 14% less for the sweater of an admired celebrity if it were sterilized before they received it. However, they were willing to pay 17% more for the sterilized sweater of a despised celebrity.
“Our findings show that contagion beliefs may be pervasive in contemporary Western societies and can influence real-world purchasing decisions,” says Newman.