Monday, March 7th, 2011

The price of authenticity

For a long time I thought our lust for original, unique objects was a direct consequence of our pursuit of status. The reason Edison’s first light bulb is more valuable than any old light bulb; that people would part with millions for a chunk of rock from the moon, is the same reason that a rich oligarch would pay a record $106.5 million for Picasso’s Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur: because he can.

These unique objects are perfect Veblen goods, whose social purpose is to signal the quality of their owner. The term comes from the 19th century social scientist Thorsten Veblen, who developed the notion of “conspicuous consumption” –the penchant of the rich to dish out large sums of money on pointless artifacts as a way to signal their command over resources and establish their superiority over everybody else. It is waste as proof of power: the more money one pays for the chunk of lunar rock, the better it serves its purpose.

(More recently, evolutionary biologists have suggested that for the males of the species these displays of wealth could serve the same purpose as peacock tails: an enormous expenditure of energy in a pointless flash of color to prove superior genes to the peahens in the mating market.)

Proper Veblen goods must be unique, of course.  The buyer of the $106.5 million Picasso would look stupid rather than powerful if you or I could buy the same painting for $50 at Wal-Mart. Even if one could reproduce Picasso’s work to the last brush stroke, Picassos can only serve their social purpose as markers of quality if copies are understood to be inferior than original pieces of art.

But my understanding of the value of originality has come under some criticism. For one, it leaves no space for magical thinking. What about the aura that a unique object carries around with it? People recoil from wearing a sweater once worn by a murderer. 6 year-olds in England believe a cup touched by Queen Elizabeth is more valuable than an identical cup untouched by the Queen.

An experiment by psychologists at the University of Michigan and the University of Bristol  confirmed that people assign a higher value to unique objects –be they Picassos, moon rocks or dinosaur bones—than similar non-unique ones. But in an interesting twist, they also found that people want to touch unique objects more than they want to touch non-unique ones. Moreover, people who had security blankets or special teddy bears as kids assigned higher monetary value to authentic versus inauthentic objects. And they were also more likely to judge an authentic object as “priceless” or “invaluable” – that is, beyond monetary value.

This suggests that the preference for the unique is not driven only by a rational assessment of market values. We value unique objects because of something that we think lives inside them. And they also help us show off.


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