Bieber fever and other contagions reveal some things about fame, money, and us

Teenage girls aren’t the only ones with Justin Bieber fever.

In April a sneaker autographed by the pop star sold for $1,425 on eBay. The buyer? A 52-year-old man from Ontario. That might seem like a lot for a used shoe, but it’s small change compared with the more than $40,000 brought in by Bieber’s auctioned hair clippings. That’s right, hair. As in, all mammals have it.

So why do people pay extreme sums for possessions, or even pieces, of celebrities? Well, one explanation lies in the very word fever.

It turns out that a driving force behind desiring something that belonged to someone famous is the concept of contagion. Rather than catching chicken pox or the flu, contagion in the anthropological sense refers to a sort of magical thinking that someone’s essence is transferable through an object that he or she has touched. It’s like cooties, but in a good way. Especially contagious are items the medical community might also consider contagious: A piece of gum chewed by Britney Spears was recently purchased for $160. Nail clippings also rate.

Of course, fever isn’t necessarily the only motivation, notes cognitive psychologist George Newman. Plain old money can also play a role — celebrity items are scarce and thus valuable commodities. The top bidder for Bieber’s snipped locks was the online casino (past purchases by the same casino include William Shatner’s kidney stone, perhaps also doubly contagious). These investments by the casino will pay off, presumably because people will pay to see these items, the same way one might pay to see a moon rock.

Newman, of Yale University, and his colleagues recently tried to untangle paying for rarity from paying for magic. They asked adults to think of someone famous, someone they admire and would be excited to meet, like George Clooney. The respondents then had to report their willingness to buy a sweater that belonged to that person and how much they would like wearing it.

The more physical contact the imagined celebrity had with the sweater, the more desirable it was, suggesting that even if it is just a sweater, magical thinking gives objects much more power. People also reported that they would get much more pleasure from wearing the sweater if it were worn and loved by the celebrity as well.

This fever seems to trump the value that’s given an object just because it is rare. When the sweater was associated with a negative celebrity, such as Saddam Hussein (standard cooties), the students said that the less contact the sweater had with the bad guy, the more likely they would be to purchase it.

“These results demonstrate that celebrity possessions are valued for reasons that go beyond mere associations or market demands,” Newman and his colleagues write in an upcoming Journal of Consumer Research.

Of course, celebrity objects can also have value because, like sentimental objects, they are connected to story — that accumulation of fact and lore with which we define ourselves. My sister has a pair of Nicole Kidman’s pants. She isn’t an especially big fan of Nicole Kidman and wouldn’t have paid money for the movie star’s clothing. My sister works in a high-end costume shop in New York City and on a day when she was without event-appropriate clothes, her boss tossed her a pair of pants to wear, formerly owned by Nicole Kidman. Years later, those pants remain in my sister’s closet, and fashion maven and seamstress extraordinaire that she is, she won’t even hem them.

Those pants don’t represent the magical essence of Ms. Kidman, but they are part of a story my sister gets to tell about her unusual  job, her oddball creativity, that brought her to a place where, incidentally, she can get into Nicole Kidman’s pants.

At the risk of presenting a meta-fun-house-mirror version of objects and meaning, those pants, like a snippet of locks for the masses known as Beliebers or a childhood doll, are just another way of identifying ourselves to ourselves and to others. A recent study by researchers in Michigan and England found that college students who valued personal objects highly — like a blanket they’d had as a child — did not think those objects belonged in a museum for every­one else to value as well. Yet the objects still held immense meaning for their owners. As one described a personal object, “I still have it, and a price can not be put on it!”

So just as celebrity objects can be elevated by magical thinking, they can be transformed to sentiment by magical thinking as well. Perhaps the real question is what does Justin Bieber have in the back of his closet? A teddy bear? A hockey stick owned by (insert famous Canadian hockey player here)? He’s human — he must Belieb in something.

SN Prime | June 24, 2011 | Vol. 1, No. 3

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