Lennon Lyrics Go for a Song

Gail Rennard was a plucky young 16 year-old living in Montreal when she heard that John Lennon and Yoko Ono where staging their famous “bed-in” at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in 1969 as a peace protest. Gail managed to sneak in and meet the Beatle and he ended up giving her hand-written lyrics to the peace anthem, “Give Peace a Chance.” With a sense of his own provenance, Lennon told her to hold on to them, as they would be worth something one day.

On July 10th 2008, they were sold for $834,000, more than twice the original estimate. Rennard was astounded. What makes this object so valuable? Does it look particularly beautiful? Is the item so valuable because, the song would be lost forever without the lyrics?

Of course, not. The reason is psychological essentialism. John Lennon is worshipped and as he penned the lyrics with his own hand, he created the object and for many it is imbued with his essence. That’s why the TV presenter on the morning chat show dealing with this story was in awe of touching the piece of paper.

By spooky coincidence, we have a study coming out shortly with Susan Gelman and her students where we examined attitudes to such historical items. Remarkably one of the items we asked participants to evaluate was a sheet of handwritten lyrics by the Beatles. Not only did people rate this as valuable and worthy of being displayed in museums, they also wanted to touch the item. It is gratifying when research findings are supported by real world examples.

Do you have any other good examples from the world of memorabilia collecting?


Filed under General Thoughts

9 responses to “Lennon Lyrics Go for a Song

  1. Pingback: SuperSense and transubstance « Just Another Deisidaimon

  2. Gus

    Bruce – this is an interesting story…but (as we’ve discussed before), such a valuable object wouldn’t be created today – because Lennon would have written the lyrics on a Powerbook.

    The digital age (in which the meaning, essence and value of both a ‘copy’ and an ‘original’ is quite different to that understood by previous generations) will presumably have a profound effect on the sort of essentialism as described here. Quite what that effect will be, who knows.

    Perhaps, like Ms Rennard, we’ll continue to be surprised by the ever-escalating value attributed to these pre-digital artefacts…

  3. brucehood

    Yes, digital technology presents an interesting new take on the production of unique compositions and artifacts. However, entering a digital age does not necessarily mean that we will abandon a proclivity to authenticity where we can find it.

    I agree that it is unlikely that a laptop open which some masterpiece is composed will gain the same collector status simply because such items are so mass produced and disposable but we still want to own, touch hold other items associated with the famous.

    As for the digital age, what could be more emblematic of our new age than computing and space travel? And yet Charles Simonyi (Microsoft uber-boss & endower of Oxford chair for the public science) found himself urinating on the wheels of the transport carrier along with other astronauts for good luck just before his recent space flight.

    As Trotsky observed, “Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery!”

    So, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

  4. Susan

    I disagree with Gus…….I don’t believe a change in the technologies we use will make any difference at all to the innate beliefs that we have. Look at the rise in “alternative” religions and the rise in complementary therapies in spite of the explosion in new means of communication and storage of information and in spite of the massive increase in knowledge and research in “conventional” medicine. Surely if the digital age and molecular age were to have a significant impact on essentialism we would be becoming more rational, not having increasing faith in practices that have not been reproducable by rigorous scientific research? If Lennon had composed his piece digitally and printed it out for Ms Rennard or emailed it to her (with the time/date/computer signature printed on the sheet) surely it would be considered equally valuable? It would be proof that it had actually come to her directly from the great man himself and there would not be a need to authenticate the signature, paper it was written on, or ink used as happens to other artefacts written by long dead stars. The method of communication I doubt will have a significant impact on the value of personal communication from an individual to another. Perhaps we should all have a back up of emails etc received in case the person emailing us becomes famous and the message valuable to us or our children in years to come??

  5. I enjoyed reading your upcoming paper with Frazier, Gelman, and Wilson. Do you think Rozin and Nemeroff’s explanation of magical contagion as an extension of biological contamination sensitivity applies to our valuation of *all* types of authentic objects? The contagion model seems like more of a stretch (although not quite absurd) when it comes to original creations (the first bike) or objects from distant times or places (moon rocks) or objects associated with historical events (pieces of the Berlin Wall).

  6. brucehood

    Hi Matthew,
    Thanks for dropping in. I am a great admirer of your articles and Psychology Today.
    First, let me begin by saying that I think that Rozin/Nemeroff magical contagion is one of four plausible mechanisms for why authentic objects are treated reverentially.

    One is association. Whenever, I talk about Rozin’s demonstration of disgust through contact with notorious items such as killer’s cardigans, critics always dismiss this as simple association. However, some associations form more rapidly and strongly than others and so there is always a role for some bias in the system that needs to be explained. Also as Rozin & Nemeroff have shown, such associations are not easily broken but counter-conditioning with positive contagion… for example, having Mother Teresa or Fred Rogers wear the item.

    The second plausible mechanism is social convention where one does not want to engage an activity that others regard as repulsive. However, this resets the question as to why society as a whole find contact with some items repugnant.

    The third mechanism is physical contamination. We do not necessarily know why bad people are bad. Maybe nature endowed us with a heuristic, “do not touch – could be infective.”

    Finally, and getting round to you question, there is spiritual or magical contagion. Something of the owner is perceived to haunt the item.

    Now these four types of mechanisms are plausible in light of personal objects but you are right to question whether such reasoning could be applied to all authentic origins. I would offer that in the case of personal possessions, Rozin/Nemeroff magical contagion is plausible. But what about the first bike or piece of the Berlin wall as you question?

    If one feels a compulsion to touch and hold an item then I am tempted to say that there is a degree of Rozinroff (new adjective) contamination but nothing as strong as personal possessions. I would submit that this may be because physical contact with others is emotionally more compelling than contact with items that are not personal.

    Alternatively, and I think this is what you may be getting at is that if one wants to enjoy an encounter with a significant item then clearly touch enhances that experience.

    So in answer to your question then yes it could be considered a stretch, but a stretch on the same mechanisms designed to process, encode and react to objects in the world.

    Thanks for getting me to think. I will forward your question on to others on the paper to comment on.

  7. The Rozin/Nemeroff work also plays a big role in my own research being the best (only?) example of work tying specific kinds of superstitions to specific heuristics. I understand that a big part of the motivation that Rozin and Nemeroff have had in developing the variety of experiments they have performed is to try and distinguish between the possible underlying mechanisms. Having said that I do not think that the distinction between the third and the fourth mechanism you suggest makes much sense in this context – the point of the R/N research seems to be that people do not distinguish between these two mechanisms, using the one heuristic to arrive at practices whose explanations might involve either kind of contagion. Of course, in examining their practices we should make this distinction but that is central to our evaluation not to their practice. Or so it seems to me. What say you? 😉

  8. brucehood

    I want to answer you question but I am not sure what you mean by “makes much sense in this context.” In my response to Matt query, I simply outlined the four mechanisms that could contribute to the reason why people do not want to touch objects.
    Fear of physical contamination is plausible and distinct from fear of moral/spiritual contamination. I agree the net result is the same but there is a clear distinction.
    For example… houses sold in the US that were previously used for methamphetamine production have to be certified as clean and decontaminated before they can be sold. However, houses where murders took place are under no such decontamination laws. Not that you could decontaminate an evil act. My point is which home do you think that potential owners would prefer? We are willing to accept that physical contamination can be eradicated by physical means but not spiritual contamination (if we happen to be individuals with a very strong supersense)

  9. O.K. That was less than perspicuous. Let’s try that again.

    What I meant was that Rozin/Nemeroff suggest that a single mechanism underlies many of our beliefs about contaminations, both for psychical examples and for magical ones – the mechanism being the contagion heuristic. The heuristic does not differentiate between magical and physical, it simply fires (and misfires) off warnings on the basis of simple environmental clues (rather than on the basis of a proper understanding of what is and what is not a realistic source of contamination). When we try to give post hoc explanations for our feeling that the murderer’s cardigan is a threat we put forward a magical explanation because no natural explanation is available (the more rational alternative being to reevaluate our feelings). If this explanation is correct, of course, it would mean that there is no ‘supersense’ strictly speaking, just our normal ‘senses’ misleading us – the contagion heuristic, in this case. I do think that is the case, however, which is why I tend to avoid phrases like ‘magical thinking’.

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