Why do people cherish family heirlooms and celebrity memorabilia? We treat them as somehow special, inherently different from items that look identical but do not share the same history. Psychologists call this phenomenon “magical contagion,” and research suggests this effect helps to fulfill our need for social connection. In other words, we expect these hand-me-downs to keep us company in lieu of the person who owned them.

Social belonging is a fundamental human need, and George Newman and Rosanna Smith of the Yale School of Management wondered whether the longing for connection might alter how we treat “authentic objects,” that is, those with a unique provenance. To find out, they conducted two experiments, reported in the November 2016 issue of Cognition.

In the first case, adults played a computer game called Cyberball, which involved passing a ball among several players. Participants were told the other players were controlled by people, when, in fact, they were programmed to pass the ball 10 times to some participants and only three times to others, mimicking social rejection. The participants then completed a “need for belonging” survey, rating their agreement with such items as “I want other people to accept me.” Finally, they viewed pairs of objects and imagined that the items—such as sweaters, guitar picks and helmets—were owned by their favorite actor, musician and athlete, respectively, but that only one in each pair had been touched by the owner. Participants who had been rejected in the game reported a greater need for belonging than did the other participants, and they experienced a stronger preference for the touched items.

Did loneliness change people's belief in magical contagion? In a second study, participants imagined either their favorite actor's sweater or the same sweater completely sterilized. They rated their desire for the sweater, how much it contained the actor's “essence,” and their own loneliness or need for belonging. The unsterilized sweater was seen by all as having more of the actor's essence, but only the lonely had a strong preference for the unsterilized sweater. Thus, social disconnection does not appear to change people's belief in magical contagion; it simply makes the magic more appealing.

“Authentic objects are in some way thought to actually have a piece of the person,” Newman says. So it may seem silly, but on a solitary night, feel free to curl up with that nice, friendly, autographed football helmet.