East versus West When it Comes to Celebrity Collectibles

Darren Julien, founder and president of one of Julien’s Auctions, a Beverly Hills based auction house, specializing in high-profile celebrity auctions and the only celebrity auction house with a license to trade in mainland China has noted that Asian interest in memorabilia is driven by different motivations than Western collectors – one that is primarily as investment. However, anyone who has ever been to a collector’s convention in the West knows that there are obsessional fans who want to own personal objects that they believe can put them in touch with their idols. Even Brittany Spears’s used wads of chewing gum famously reached outrageous prices when they were put up for sale on the web. Many obsessional collectors have no intention of selling on their prized collectibles.

 We’ve been studying the phenomenon of memorabilia and collectibles for some time now and next week, we are presenting our recent PlosOne paper, “Individualism and the extended-self:  Cross-cultural differences in the valuation of authentic objects,” to academics gathered at Yale to discuss the psychology of art collecting at meeting at the International Center for Finance in the Business School.

Our research is motivated by two separate strands of work, essentialism and the extended self that you can read about in SuperSense and The Self Illusion. Essentialism is the idea that authenticity is inferred by a hidden dimension or “essence” that defines the true nature of objects. It has its origins in the classical philosophy of Plato and is best captured by thought experiments such as the Ship of Theseus problem (you know the one – if you replace every plank of wood of a ship, when does it cease to remain original?). The Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit has conjured up similar scenarios with duplicating humans. We have shown that children reject duplicated teddy bears, think that cutlery that was belonged to Queen Elizabeth II is worth more than identical duplicates and touching the clothing of a killer can morally contaminate oneself.

We think that all of these diverse areas of research findings can be explained by naïve psychological essentialism that operates through the mode of contagion similar to Paul Rozin’s seminal (ha!) work on disgust which explains why washing celebrity clothing is believed to significantly devalue the object.

The second strand of research into collectibles is the extended self hypothesis whereby we use objects to signal to others our status which is why they become extensions of our self worth. As William James noted,

‘‘A man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account.’’

(James, 1890, p. 291)

Manifestation of the extended self is the well-known endowment effect whereby individuals believe their personal possessions are worth more that identical objects owned by others. However, both the endowment effect and possibly the extended self are reflections of cultural norms where personal possessions are given elevated status. For example, there is one report of a hunter-gather tribe that do not show the endowment effect and it has not been found in children below the age of 5 years though they do show preferences and have sentimental personal objects which are probably rudimentary forerunners of the adult endowment effect. 

In our recent study conducted via the MTurk platform, we asked Western (mostly US) and Eastern (mostly Indian) adults to estimate the value of four types of collectible, a work of art, a celebrity sweater, a dinosaur bone and moon rock. We then told them about a machine that can create an identical duplicate and asked them to value the copy. In two studies of over 800 adults we found the same basic pattern. Overall, both cultures think originals are worth more than copies but the two cultures diverge on the celebrity clothing. Eastern adults see the duplicate as not significantly different from the original compared to the Westerns adults. These results support the hypothesis that individualistic cultures place a greater value on objects associated with unique persons, which explains why the valuation of certain authentic items may vary cross-culturally.

It’s not that Eastern cultures do not have their idols. They certainly have their superstars in film and music as well, but the desire to collect celebrity possessions may not be such a cultural tradition. Eastern cultures also exhibit essentialist contagion in their rituals and concerns about moral contamination (the caste system being the notable example) but essentialist concerns are primarily heightened for negative contamination as opposed to positive transfer which is what is believed to be operating in celebrity clothing.

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