When Paul Bloom and I gave a presentation at SciFoo this summer, we talked about how essentialism influences the way that we feel about objects. Many of us (but not all I grant you) think that special objects are unique and irreplaceable because we attribute an inner “essence.” As regular readers of this blog will know, I have argued that rampant essentialism explains many strange and seemingly irrational human beliefs and behaviours. It explains why most of us value memorabilia from people we admire, and find ‘murderbilia’ – possessions of people we loathe, disgusting.
Essentialism is more than just association as I am always at pains to point out. We are more disgusted by holding a cookery book previously owned by Hitler than reading a biography about him detailing all his atrocities. Something about a personal possession triggers our emotional revulsion.
At Scifoo, Paul talked about his book, “How Pleasure Works” and the role of essentialism in our attitudes towards authentic things. The pleasure we derive from a Rolex, is the belief that it is genuine. Even if a counterfeit Rolex is indistinguishable from the genuine watch, we would not enjoy it as much despite the fact that everyone thinks we are loaded enough to buy such an expensive timepiece.
It turns out that the difference between authentic and counterfeit products is not only price – we feel and act differently when we wear fake items. Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational) published an interesting paper in Psychological Science back in May this year – it takes me that long to catch up with the latest research – demonstrating that people who knowingly wear counterfeit sunglasses cheated more on a bunch of tasks, were more likely to think other people behaved dishonestly and generally felt like frauds themselves.
This is a really surprising paper as most people predict that wearing counterfeit items would not make someone think this way. So even if you buy a fake Rolex or Gucci sunglasses to improve your social standing and self-image, the reality is that you are going to feel worse about yourself if you did not buy the item in the first place. Look out for more illusions of the self in my current book I am working on.