The Material Girl's old Amex card has immaterial magic

Eagerness to own celebrities' old possessions is tied to an ancient belief in "contagious magic".

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On Sunday, Madonna will give her first-ever UAE performance, but if you can't wait that long you can get a little piece of the Queen of Pop at BurJuman's Simply Madonna exhibition.

At the exhibition-cum-Madonna-memorabilia salesroom, items for sale include some of her costumes, outfits and jewellery. There are even a number of personal items and one of Madge's expired American Express cards. The price tag on some of these items runs to the millions; for example, the iconic pink satin dress from the 1985 Material Girl video will set you back around Dh2 million.

Not being a Madonna fan, it's really hard for me to imagine who would want to buy these things. I am however, acutely aware that such people do indeed exist. Furthermore, as a psychologist I'm particularly interested in trying to understand them, and the motives behind their seemingly irrational purchases.

The exhibition organisers suggest their Madge memorabilia is aimed at "diehard fans". The word fan itself perhaps tells us a little something about the type of individuals "desperately seeking souvenirs". The Oxford English Dictionary defines fan as an abbreviation of the word fanatic, "marked by excessive enthusiasm". In turn, fanatic derives from the Latin fanaticus, meaning "insanely or divinely inspired". So perhaps the target market for the Madge memorabilia is individuals who are at least a little insane? Madonna's current tour is called MDNA; in part a play on the acronym MDMA, which is a drug that started life in psychotherapeutic context. Coincidence?

Others in the market for Madge memorabilia are the calculating speculators; those who might dispassionately buy a piece or two purely with a view to cashing in later. However, even the speculators rely on the existence of slightly insane enthusiasts, those who derive pleasure from the objects way beyond potential resale value.

It is not only popular entertainers such as Madonna who make it onto the memorabilia market. A tape measure once owned by JFK sold for almost $50,000 (Dh183,500) and browsing eBay throws up no end of "authentic" celebrity memorabilia. One apocryphal report suggests a Saudi businessman offered to pay $10 million for the shoes thrown at George W Bush by an Iraqi journalist.

The memorabilia market is not limited to entertainers, nor is it purely a phenomenon of our modern age. Medieval Europe saw a roaring trade in sacred relics; pieces of the "true cross" and the bones and even eyes of bygone saints were all popular.

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale, suggests that memory evocation, boasting rights and resale potential are a few of the reasons people derive pleasure from possessing objects previously owned by special individuals. However, he argues, the more powerful and fundamental source of this pleasure stems from our implicit beliefs in contagious magic.

Anthropologists have long documented belief in contagious magic across human societies. People commonly hold a belief that things that were once in contact always maintain a connection. This can give rise to the idea that objects associated with special people, or even animals (rabbits' feet for instance) maintain a connection and something of their former owners' essence. Believers in contagious magic often take care when disposing of their own hair and nails, to avoid them being used in sorcery.

Bloom tested out the idea of contagion in a set of experiments where individuals were asked to say how much they would pay for objects associated with famous individuals; for example, George Clooney's sweater. Researchers systematically varied the item descriptions. In one, Clooney's sweater was described as having been dry cleaned, in another it had been given to the star but he'd never worn it, and in a third, it was both well-worn and hadn't been cleaned.

This latter condition, as predicted, solicited the highest bids; people in general were willing to pay more for the well-worn celebrity items.

Bloom and his colleagues interpreted these findings in terms of participants holding beliefs similar to those associated with contagious magic. Bloom argues it was as though participants felt these celebrity items were imbued with something of the essence of their former owners.

Going to see Madonna perform live will cost you only a few hundred dirhams. To own a little piece of her essence will cost you a lot more, and may, at some future point, get you tried for witchcraft.

But I just can't see how an old Amex card could be ever be imbued with its former owner's essence, even if that former owner happens to be the self-professed material girl.

Justin Thomas is an assistant psychology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi