Science Suggests We Think Celebrities Are Magical

A new study finds that people pay more for objects touched by someone famous. Could this explain the popularity of celebrity design collaborations?

Science Suggests We Think Celebrities Are Magical
[Image: Marilyn Monroe via Sergey Goryachev / Shutterstock]

We all know how magic the famous can seem. They appear to glow in the light of photographers’ flashbulbs and can inspire applause just by walking into a room. And it turns out that even in our increasingly secular world, where enchantment is often usurped in favor of science, we still subconsciously believe that celebrities truly are magical.


In a recent study, Yale psychologists George Newman and Paul Bloom found that people were willing to pay higher prices at auctions of celebrity memorabilia. Otherwise rational adults forked over more for an object if they believed it had been touched by a renowned person, like Marilyn Monroe or JFK–and paid less if it had been touched by an infamous villain, like Bernie Madoff.

The researchers studied data sets from recent auctions of items from Kennedy, Monroe, and Madoff. These included furniture, books, jewelry, and tableware. Since auctioneers can’t know how often these prominent people fondled a belonging, the researchers asked three study participants to rate how often they believed each item had been touched by giving it a score on a scale of one to eight–so, for example, Kennedy likely touched that fork more often than those picture frames.

The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found a strong correlation between higher ratings of expected physical contact by the famous owners and higher prices (exceeding auction houses’ estimated values of the objects). But why? Don’t sane adults know that a fork is still a fork, even if it once delivered food into a presidential mouth? It comes down to a nonsensical, but widespread belief in what the researchers call “contagion.”

“Contagion is 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,” they write. Their findings “suggest that magical thinking may still have effects in contemporary Western societies.”

The researchers backed up their findings with an original experiment: they gathered 435 volunteers and asked them how much they’d bid on a hypothetical sweater. Some participants were told the sweater had belonged to a beloved celebrity, while others were told it had belonged to a celebrity who was widely despised. They were also told the sweater had been transformed in one of three ways: either it had been professionally sterilized (which could theoretically wash off its owner’s “essence”); it had been transferred to an auction house (and touched by handlers); or it came with the stipulation that it could never be sold again (which would remove any chance of profiting off the purchase).

It turned out that participants were willing to pay 14.5% less for the sterilized sweater of the beloved celeb–indicating a belief that the magical aura had been washed away. But they would pay just 8.9% less for a sweater they couldn’t resell–indicating they thought it was inherently valuable because of the magic powers it had absorbed. The auction house’s handling of it affected results negligibly: apparently, mortal hands can’t wipe away the residual traces of fame. Results for the despised person’s sweater, they found, were the exact opposite.


The findings have implications in the design world as well–celebrities love to try their hand at designing, despite lacking, in most instances, any background or training in the field. Whether it’s a clothing line by Jessica Simpson or Posh Spice, perfume by Justin Bieber, the Brooklyn Nets logo designed by Jay-Z, or a marijuana vaporizer from Snoop Dogg, we’re often susceptible to thinking that a celebrity’s magic touch can make a design better or more valuable, even if it’s objectively crappier than a product designed by a mere mortal.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.