How Social Contagion Escapes Rationality

How Social Contagion Escapes Rationality

What can the behavior of fanatical collectors tell us about social media phenomena?

Stephen Fortune
  • 10 march 2011

Social contagion is an area of research which seems especially pressing for those chasing the next viral hit, but it’s worth bearing in mind that it has been a subject which has fascinated and troubled psychologists and social scientist for nigh on a century. A group of Yale psychologists have isolated the fervour surrounding an Eric Clapton guitar auction as an appropriate site for investigating this phenomena.

The team uncovered some fascinating finds, many of which enforce the irrationality of reasoning which accompanies such purchases.

Some bidders might rationalize their purchases as good investments, or as objects that are worth having just because they provide pleasant memories and mental associations of someone they admire. But those do not seem to be the chief reasons for buying celebrity memorabilia

The most important factor seemed to be the degree of “celebrity contagion”; whether or not the celebrity in question had actually touched or held the memorabilia being touted.

The team found that a sweater owned by a popular celebrity became more valuable to people if they learned it had actually been worn by their idol. But if the sweater had subsequently been cleaned and sterilized, it seemed less valuable to the fans, apparently because the celebrity’s essence had somehow been removed

Such bizarre factors have much in common with phenomena which are elsewhere deemed as magickal thinking or primitive beliefs. Their persistent and powerful presence are important factors to bear in mind whenever one attempts to get a quantative handle on social media phenomena.

Dangerous Minds: “Scientists Examine Fever Around Eric Clapton Guitar Auction”

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