Why would you pay for Madoff’s wallet?

New study in the February 8 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research conducted by a US-Israeli team probes the celebrity ‘contagion’ factor.

How much would you pay to own the khaki shorts that David Ben-Gurion wore when he stood on his head or Albert Einstein’s comb?
A new study in the February 8 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research conducted by a US-Israeli team explains why somebody would make out a check for $48,875 for a piece of costume jewelry that had belonged to the late Jackie Kennedy or $3,300 for mega-thief Bernard Madoff’s wallet.
Prof. Gil Diesendruck of the Leslie and Susan Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University and Drs. George E. Newman and Paul Bloom of Yale University discuss the question of why people pay money for celebrity possessions.
“Celebrity items often have little functional value. And because the objects themselves tend to be relatively common artifacts such as clothing or furniture, they are often physically indistinguishable from a number of seemingly identical products in the marketplace,” they wrote.
The team found that an object is more likely to be regarded a precious and worth buying if it still bears some physical connection to the celebrity.
The authors researched potential explanations for the phenomenon, going into the concept of “contagion” – the belief that a person’s immaterial qualities or essence can be transferred onto an object through physical contact.
“We were curious to examine the degree to which contagion may account for the valuation of celebrity items,” the authors wrote.
In their first study, the authors asked participants how much they would like to own possessions that belong or belonged to celebrities and compared them with non-celebrity possessions.
Some were told the object belonged to a person who was not famous, while others heard that it belong to a celebrity. They were asked about admired people (like sexy actor George Clooney) or despised individuals (like the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein).
The same objects were rated as being more desired when the object had allegedly belonged to a celebrity. Then they measured the dimensions of contagion, perceived market value how much the individual was liked or hated.
“For well-liked celebrities, the primary explanation seemed to be contagion – participants expressed a desire to own some of the individual’s actual physical remnants,” the authors wrote.
Meanwhile, when the items had belonged to a despised individual, people perceived that the items were potentially valuable to others, but contact with the hated individuals decreased the items’ value.
In a second experiment, participants reported their willingness to purchase a sweater owned by someone famous (well-liked or despised). But the sweater was “transformed” by removing any germs on it through dry cleaning or preventing its resale. For well-liked celebrities “sterilizing” reduced participants’ willingness to purchase the sweater that had previously been touched by the celebrity, while preventing the resale of the item had a comparably minimal effect.
“In contrast, for despised individuals, the pattern was the opposite. Removing contact only increased the sweater’s value while preventing the sale to others significantly reduced participants’ willingness to purchase it,” the authors concluded.
Diesendruck has been studying related issues in children and is now starting a similar project on infants.
Additional information about the project may be found at http://faculty.biu.ac.il/~dieseng/