60-Second Science

Celebrity Auction Prices Depend on Contact and Character

The magical thinking concept of contagion, the transfer of essence through objects, comes into play at celebrity auctions, where items that were in close physical contact with the celeb fetch bigger bucks than other goods they owned. Allie Wilkinson reports 

Lady Gaga’s fake fingernails and Justin Timberlake’s partly eaten French toast have fetched big bucks at auction. Because these seemingly worthless items once belonged to a celebrity. Now a study finds that the price depends on the how much contact the celeb had with an item and whether they were heroes or villains. The research is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [George E. Newman and Paul Bloom, Physical contact influences how much people pay at celebrity auctions
Data from auctions revealed that people spend more on items like jewelry rather than furniture, at least for well-liked folks such as JFK or Jackie O. Items from reviled celebs such as Bernie Madoff fetched lower bids.
The findings suggest that people’s desire for celebrity memorabilia stems from the belief in what’s called contagion: the idea that a person’s essence can be transferred through an object they touched.
A follow-up experiment further supports the contagion idea. Participants said they would pay substantially less for a celebrity darling’s sweater if it had been sterilized. But sterilization actually increased the amount subjects would pay for a sweater owned by a disliked celebrity. Gives a whole new meaning to money laundering.

—Allie Wilkinson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]


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