These three sales have more in common than their insane price tags. All three of these souvenirs were auctioned off in the United States. A new study suggests Americans may be more likely to splurge on celebrity memorabilia—not because our culture is more obsessed with celebrity, but because it’s more individualistic.
A team of psychologists, led by Nathalia Gjersoe of England’s Open University and George Newman at Yale, recruited over 800 adults online; about half came from a Western country—mostly the United States—and half from an Eastern one—mostly India. On scales of individualism, the U.S. tends to rank first in the world; India comes in near the bottom.
The participants viewed illustrations and read descriptions of one of four objects: a painting by a famous artist, a sweater that had once belonged to John F. Kennedy, a dinosaur bone, or a moon rock. They were asked to estimate the object’s value—between $0 and $1 million for the painting, and between $0 and $10,000 for everything else. They also had to indicate, on a scale of 0 to 100, how much they would like to own the object and how much they believed the object belonged in a museum. The researchers combined the answers to these questions to generate a value that reflected all three measures: personal value, perceived monetary value, and perceived social value.
The subjects were then told that physicists had invented a machine that could create a perfect copy of the object, and asked to evaluate the replica on the same three scales.
Both the Eastern and Western populations assigned a much higher value to the authentic moon rock and dinosaur bone, and both groups also believed that the original painting was more valuable (though the Western sample perceived a bigger difference in value between the original and duplicated painting).
The most significant cross-cultural difference emerged when the researchers compared the two groups’ evaluation of the sweater supposedly worn by JFK: The Westerners considered the original much more valuable than the duplicate, but the Easterners judged both to be worth about the same.
Gjersoe and her colleagues conducted a follow-up experiment on a second group, with a couple of tweaks. To control for the possibility that Indians and Americans had different feelings about JFK, the participants in this round were told that the sweater had belonged not to Kennedy but to their favorite living celebrity. Their answers revealed the same pattern: Both groups agreed that the original moon rock and dinosaur bone were more valuable than the duplicates, but the Americans had a stronger preference for the original painting and sweater.
Gjersoe and Newman believe that members of a collectivist culture are less likely to place a high value on an object that derives its worth from its link to a specific individual. The authors conclude: “These results support the hypothesis that individualistic cultures in the West place a greater value on objects associated with unique persons.”