Wednesday, January 16, 2008


It’s one of the big questions – can people ever be completely rational, or are we doomed to always knock on wood?*

Now most superstitions and habits can be chalked up to a simple, and understandable, desire to find a cause for events – you break a mirror and your wife leaves you, for example - you see cause and effect there because it’s easier than accepting that you’re a twat. This can also be seen when the cause and effect don’t quite seem to match – A mentally unstable nobody gets an urge -- a great man is shot dead – doesn’t fit right with people, the cause and effect seem disproportionate, so they flail around for something more fitting and substantial.

There is, however, an area of human oddness which I find less easy to explain: the widely held belief, often unconscious, that inanimate objects are in some way imbued with a kind of essence from their human user/owner.

There have been studies** in which a self-selecting group of people who considered themselves ‘very rational’ were offered something shiny and desirable (for the sake of argument it doesn’t matter what). When a volunteer was presented with something that they wanted, the assistant informed them that the shiny thing was previously owned by a notorious serial rapist/murderer. With a miniscule number of exceptions, they all turned it down. Even when the assistant explained that the shiny thing had been washed, sterilised, the volunteers weren’t interested. Even when they provided absolute assurance that it hadn’t been anywhere near any of the attacks, only a small minority of them actually accepted the stuff.

Now these are rational people, people who pride themselves on not trusting in the reality of things whose existence has not been empirically proven, and yet they refuse this thing that they want because of a previous owner, of which not a molecule remains – due to some kind of irrational fear.

For all my scorn, however, I knew when reading it that I would have done the same thing, and after a little thought this refusal doesn’t seem that irrational. Whilst the object is not physically tainted, it now has the status of a very unpleasant signifier. It becomes a trigger, of sorts, your brain would inevitably feel the need to remind you of its previous owner whenever you saw it, and then you’d recall the details of their actions – which would be unpleasant. So, for the sake of personal sanity the object is best avoided. Admittedly the reason doesn’t lie in the physical world, but it does make a sort of sense – it’s the same reason why people prize objects used at historical events it evokes memories and images. Coal is just coal, but coal from the titanic, well, people queue to see that.

Other things are less easily explained though. Like why the painting is more prized than the perfect reproduction or why many musicians get a kick out of using equipment with illustrious former owners. The latter example is probably one of the most strange; it seems to me to come down to people wanting to find some kind of physical remnant of a person’s intangible qualities.

Lastly there’s a little scenario I’ve been thinking about:

Say you have a paperweight, it’s pretty, it holds down the stuff on your desk when the window is open. It’s one of those things that you always take with you whenever you move offices, and you always get rather agitated when you can’t find it. Now say one day a policeman comes to your office and tells you that they want it for evidence, as they have reason to believe that someone used it to bludgeon someone to death.

You would be horrified. You would, most interestingly, be retroactively repulsed by the idea that you handled it, tossed it from hand to hand, and spent many bored hours watching the light bounce off it.



*Apologies for the rhetorical questions, they just came out and now I can’t be bothered to write something less pretentious.

**sorry to get your hopes up with the asterisk and everything, but I’m afraid I can’t find the original abstract – this footnote is just a dirty little tease.