The Magic of Contagion

What makes people pay large sums of money for apparently mundane objects such as JFK’s golf clubs ($772,500 at auction) and rocking chair ($453,500)? Although a portion of the price is related to investment value, this cannot account for the exorbitant amounts paid for these items. Something else is at work. According to a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research, the fact that JFK owned these objects — and more importantly — touched them, are the main reasons why people will pay so much. Camelot was magical in more ways than one.

Fascinated by the high-priced world of celebrity objects, George Newman and colleagues decided to test “the degree to which contagion beliefs, in contrast to other motivations such as associations and market demands, account for the valuation of celebrity items.” Drawing on a substantial body of anthropological literature, the authors define “contagion” as “a form of magical thinking in which people believe that a person’s immaterial qualities or essence can be transferred to an object through physical contact.” Before dismissing such ideas as nonsense, we would do well to consider just how pervasive such thinking actually is.

The most obvious examples come from supernaturalism and religion. Early anthropologists often commented on the tribal fascination with things like fetishes or medicine bundles, usually considering them to be markers of “primitive” culture. They apparently did not notice the same ideas at work in Christianity, which has long trafficked in magical-sacred objects including the Holy Grail, Shroud of Turin, Spear of Destiny, bones of saints, blood of martyrs, splinters of the cross, and most importantly, the Holy Prepuce — Jesus’ circumcised foreskin. In a slightly different vein but working on the same principles, some Jews insist on eating kosher. Although magical objects or relics abound in nearly all religions, even the most committed materalists have similar ideas.

How else to explain the enormous sums of money paid by baseball enthusiasts for balls, bats, and gloves used by the game’s greatest players? There is of course the lucrative world of celebrity memorabilia and its evil twin “murderabilia.” Who wouldn’t want to own a lock of Charles Manson’s hair, an Adolph Hitler painting, or a Jeffrey Dahmer tool? Strangely, owners of odious items don’t like to touch them — this curious fact brings us full circle back to contagion or the belief that certain objects have magical properties that can be transferred through touch.

Contagion has a biological basis and deep evolutionary roots in a universal human emotion: disgust. In their article “Dirt, Disgust, and Disease,” Valerie Curtis and Adam Biran explain:

In their exploration of Darwinian medicine, Nesse and Williams (1995) suggest that an instinctive disgust may motivate the avoidance of feces, vomit, and people who may be contagious, and that disgust is one of the mechanisms crafted by natural selection to help us keep our distance from contagion. Pinker (1998) proposes that disgust is “intuitive microbiology,” and that this explains our aversion to objects that have been in contact with disgusting substances: “Since germs are transmissible by contact, it is no surprise that something that touches a yucky substance is itself forever yucky.”

We believe that the line of argument proposed by Nesse and Williams and by Pinker, which explains disgust as an adaptation to the threat of disease, holds the key to the puzzle. Microbes and parasites have always provided a potent selective force driving the evolution of the defenses of higher organisms. Whether micro-parasites, such as viruses, bacteria, and protozoa, or macro-parasites, such as internal worms or external arthropods, these organisms play a role analogous to that of predators in driving adaptation in animal populations.

In the arms race between animals and their parasites, parasite attackers have evolved to exploit all the available ports of entry. Their hosts have evolved to protect these ports with all available defenses. In humans, the airways, the gut, the genitals, and the skin are the four main routes of entry for parasites seeking nourishment and reproductive opportunity.

Over the past decade, geneticists have discovered certain “hot spots” in the human genome — regions where there is evidence of intense and sustained selection pressure. Many of these hot spots code for immune response or regulate the immune system, which is something we would expect in a world filled with invisible pathogens. It is but a short symbolic step from intuitive microbiology (“Gross, don’t touch that!”) to metaphysical veneration (“Awesome, let me rub it!”).


Newman, George, Diesendruck, Gil, and Bloom, Paul (2011). Celebrity Contagion and the Value of Objects. Journal of Consumer Research, 38 : 10.1086/658999, Stable URL

Curtis V, & Biran A (2001). Dirt, Disgust, and Disease: Is Hygiene in Our Genes? Perspectives in biology and medicine, 44 (1), 17-31, PMID: 11253302, Open Access

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2 thoughts on “The Magic of Contagion

  1. Pingback: Foreign Ideas & Moral Indigestion

  2. Keith Naylor

    Hmm – I’m not yet convinced by the whole thread of this argument. I stumble badly on the:

    ” It is but a short symbolic step from intuitive microbiology (“Gross, don’t touch that!”) to metaphysical veneration (“Awesome, let me rub it!”).”

    To me this appears a pretty huge step. I understand the evolutionary/bio-psychological reasoning behind the first premise and part of the metaphysical/veneration aspect of the second. However I suspect that that biological needs of first hand experience as aids to belief confirmation also come into play. Relics in medieval Europe were not only seen as being imbued with mystical healing properties (miracles) but were used as direct “proof” of biblical characters or objects to reinforce the Christian belief system. Comparative roles of artifacts can of course be seen in other cultures.

    Scientists however also use artifacts (albeit with a greater degree of provenance) purely as powerful teaching aids and hopefully without a need for metaphysical veneration! Similarly field studies/trips (as opposed to pilgrimages) are undertaken to places we have heard about second or third hand.

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