What would you pay for your favorite singer’s T-shirt or a movie star’s ballpoint pen? Who would pay almost $50,000 for a tape measure that used to belong to President John F. Kennedy? Why do people spend outrageous sums on items that were once owned, or even just touched, by celebrities?
A recent auction of legendary rock musician Eric Clapton’s guitars and amplifiers caught the attention of Yale University sociologists who were interested in these questions. Not only were items owned by Clapton attracting extremely high bids, but a replica of a favorite Clapton guitar was expected to fetch at least $20,000. The sociologists see a resemblance between such modern-day phenomena and ancient social practices called imitative magic: things that resemble each other have similar powers. A belief in imitative magic is believed to have inspired prehistoric cave paintings of hunting scenes: that is, to paint the scene of a successful hunt was thought to make the outcome more likely.
The same principle accounts for such diverse practices as sticking pins in voodoo dolls and eating walnuts to boost intelligence (because of the nuts’ brainlike appearance). It also leads to what has been called contagious magic—the notion that talent or some special quality can be associated with an object. It is just such a belief, whether conscious or not, that prompts an aspiring musician to think that he or she can play better on an instrument once used by a particular performer. For example, one musician claimed his own performance improved when he started using old guitar strings that rocker Duane Allman had thrown away.
AP Photo/Charles Sykes
- Urge to Own That Clapton Guitar Is Contagious, Scientists Find
This New York Times article describes the study related to guitars for auction. (Source: New York Times, March 8, 2011)
- Celebrity Contagion and the Value of Objects
This Chicago Journals Web site presents the complete report by the Yale sociologists (Newman, Diesendruck and Bloom). (Source: Journal of Consumer Research Inc.; accessed May 20, 2011)
- The Eric Clapton Sale of Guitars and Amps in Aid of The Crossroads Centre
This Web site gives the details of Eric Clapton’s guitars and amp sold at auction, including final sale prices. (Source: bonhams.com, March 9, 2011)
- Sympathetic Magic
This page from The Skeptic’s Dictionary describes imitative magic, also known as sympathetic magic. (Source: The Skeptic’s Dictionary; accessed May 20, 2011)