As more revelations of UK TV presenter Jimmy Savile's alleged pedophilia assaults come to light, there are many investors who wish they had just not bothered to bid on his memorabilia earlier this year, despite the £300,000 raised for charity. For example, a Dorset scrap dealer who paid £160,000 for Savile's convertible Rolls-Royce thinks he will be lucky to get £70,000 now -- I doubt he will even get that.
People are willing to pay large amounts of money for memorabilia of famous people they admire. Why is that? One psychological reason I find fascinated stems from an intuitive belief in essentialism -- that objects are imbued with some sort of essence from the original owner. My colleagues George Newman, Gil Diesendruck and Paul Bloom of Yale University demonstrated that participants are willing to pay more for a celebrity sweater, such as one owned by George Clooney, in comparison to an identical brand-new sweater.
You might think that the value of owning memorabilia comes from telling people you own a celebrity sweater and, indeed, the value drops if you can never reveal that you own it. However, the biggest effect on the value of the celebrity memorabilia is if you wash it, indicating that people believe that you are washing away some of the Clooney cooties.
Beliefs of positive contagion can have remarkable effects on our performance. In a 2011 study, amateur golfers who were told that a putter they were using belonged to the golf pro Ben Curtis sunk significantly more putts than when they played with a standard club. What is more striking is that on perceptual tests those with the Ben Curtis club also thought that the hole looked bigger. No wonder many sports enthusiasts believe that using a professional's equipment improves performance, even when that association is by endorsement alone.
The flip side of positive contagion is negative contagion, and as one of the pioneers of this research Paul Rozin has pointed out the effects of evil essence are much worse than good essence. As the saying goes, a drop of oil spoils a barrel of honey more than a drop of honey spoils a barrel of oil. Evil essential contamination, unlike the George Clooney example, cannot be easily washed away. Like Lady Macbeth, such stains leave an indelible mark, which is why such items are often destroyed. When the child murderer Myra Hindley died in 2002 in prison, her bed linen was incinerated in an unusual departure from British hospital protocol. Years earlier, the house she had shared with accomplice Ian Brady had been destroyed. The same fate has befallen many houses which are known in the estate agent trade as "stigmatized" homes.
Of course, there are always some who relish the macabre, and there is a flourishing trade in murder-billia, which is one of the reasons that the sale of Nazi mementoes are banned on eBay. This weekend the Mirror published an article saying that the auction website was also planning on removing the sale of Jimmy Savile's memorabilia. Some things can simply not be morally cleansed.