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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
J Cogn Cult. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 July 13.
Published in final edited form as:
J Cogn Cult. 2009 January 1; 9(1-2): 1–14.
doi:  10.1163/156853709X414601
PMCID: PMC2903069

Picasso Paintings, Moon Rocks, and Hand-Written Beatles Lyrics: Adults’ Evaluations of Authentic Objects


Authentic objects are those that have an historical link to a person, event, time, or place of some significance (e.g., original Picasso painting; gown worn by Princess Diana; your favorite baby blanket). The current study examines everyday beliefs about authentic objects, with three primary goals: to determine the scope of adults’ evaluation of authentic objects, to examine such evaluation in two distinct cultural settings, and to determine whether a person’s attachment history (i.e., whether or not they owned an attachment object as a child) predicts evaluation of authentic objects. We found that college students in the U.K. (N = 125) and U.S. (N = 119) consistently evaluate a broad range of authentic items as more valuable than matched control (inauthentic) objects, more desirable to keep, and more desirable to touch, though only non-personal authentic items were judged to be more appropriate for display in a museum. These patterns were remarkably similar across the two cultural contexts. Additionally, those who had an attachment object as a child evaluated objects more favorably, and in particular judged authentic objects to be more valuable. Altogether, these results demonstrate broad endorsement of "positive contagion" among college-educated adults.

Keywords: Ownership, Authenticity, Essentialism, Cultural comparisons

Although the study of human cognition often focuses on analytical, scientific, or rational beliefs (e.g., Piaget, 1970; Shafir & LeBoeuf, 2002), there is increasing realization that magical or superstitious beliefs are also an important part of the fabric of everyday thought. Once thought to be “childish” or reflecting lack of scientific understanding, such beliefs have more recently been shown to be concurrent with scientific understandings (Hood, in press; Rosengren, Johnson, & Harris, 2000), even among educated adults. The co-existence of rational and supernatural belief systems can be seen in beliefs about human evolution (Evans, 2008; Shtulman, 2006), illness causation (Legare & Gelman, in press), and moral reasoning (Turiel & Neff, 2000).

In the present paper we examine one such set of beliefs – the evaluations of authentic objects. Prior work by Rozin and his colleagues discusses this work in the context of magical contagion beliefs, in which contagion with either a negative or a positive individual will yield negative or positive responses, respectively. For example, people wish to avoid contact with a sweater once worn by a murderer (Nemeroff & Rozin, 1994). Bloom (1996, 2004) also discusses the role of authenticity in judgments of artwork – the evaluation that an authentic piece of art is more valuable than a duplicate. Some work indicates that children, too, grant special status to authentic objects. Children are attentive to the history of an object, judging that personal identity is tied to the historical continuity of an object rather than its perceptual features or name (Gutheil et al., in press) and that original objects are particularly valuable (Frazier & Gelman, 2007). Similarly, the historical feature of creator’s intent is important for children determining the name or identity of a picture or object (Bloom & Markson, 1998; Gelman & Ebeling, 1998; Gelman & Bloom, 2000).

For many people, certain objects are deemed unique and irreplaceable by virtue of the emotional attachment they engender. In the case of personal possessions, many individuals have sentimental objects that are valued over and beyond their commercial worth or replacement value. One of the earliest and most common examples of sentimentality towards items is childhood “security” or “attachment” objects. In Western culture, around one-half to two-thirds of children form a strong emotional bond to an inanimate object, usually a blanket or soft toy such as a teddy bear found in the crib (Passman, 1987). Typically children cling to these objects when stressed, are inconsolable if these objects are lost, and sleep with the object every night. The behavior typically emerges towards the end of the first year and peaks between 2–3 years of age with a decline around 5–7 years (Busch & McKnight, 1977). Psychoanalytically-oriented theories (Winnicott, 1953) and association learning accounts (Gewirtz, 1972) regard these objects as “transitional” because they enable the child to substitute an object for the emotional security offered by the mother. There is indirect evidence for such accounts in that cross-cultural studies show that societies in which children are separated from the mother early for sleeping purposes have higher incidences of children’s attachment objects compared to those societies (e.g., Japan) where children continue to sleep with the mother well into middle childhood (Hobara, 2003; Litt, 1986). While the development of such emotional attachment towards such objects may be a consequence of child-rearing practices, the objects themselves are deemed irreplaceable. For example, preschool children who believe that a special machine can copy physical objects exactly, either will not allow their attachment objects to be duplicated or will reject apparent copies as not suitable replacements (Hood & Bloom, 2008). Such behavior is consistent with emerging psychological essentialism where unique objects are deemed to possess hidden inner properties that define their true nature (Medin & Ortony, 1989; Gelman, 2003).

In past research on positive contagion, adults appear to believe that through physical contact with a respected or loved individual, objects take on a special quality or essence (Johnson & Jacobs, 2001; Nemeroff & Rozin, 1994). Csikszentmihalyi (1993) suggests that objects are used to remind us of “the continuity of the self through time” and as physical representations of “the ties that link a person to others.” This may explain why British 6-year-olds regard original cups and spoons said to belong to Queen Elizabeth II as more valuable than identical cups and spoons produced by a copying machine, and yet they regard anonymous cups and spoons said to be made of silver as equivalent in value to apparent duplicates produced by the same machine (Hood & Bloom, 2008). Clearly by this age, there is an emerging sensitivity to authenticity and value of personal possessions from famous people.

What about other authentic objects not necessarily from famous people? One question that is still unanswered is the scope of these beliefs in adults. The question of scope can be examined in at least two distinct ways: what kinds of authentic objects receive special evaluation, and what kinds of evaluations do people provide? By probing the breadth of these beliefs, we can test competing models. Specifically: (1) Do authenticity effects reflect a rational economic judgment, in which people have learned the market value of certain objects? (We test this by including a range of evaluative measures, including not only economic judgments (which are plausibly rational), but also clearly irrational judgments, such as wanting to own and touch items. (2) Do authenticity effects reflect an emotional “halo” effect involving beloved people? (We test this by including items that are not associated with specific individuals and have no intrinsic emotional valence, such as items that are spatially and temporally remote – from foreign countries and ancient times. We also include measures that don’t involve emotional judgments, including museum appropriateness and monetary value.) (3) Do authenticity effects reflect an overall bias to judge authentic items as better than inauthentic objects? (We test this by including items for which we predict no authenticity effects – namely, judging whether personal items are appropriate for museum display)

A second issue concerns the cultural generality of these beliefs. We examine this issue by contrasting university students from two highly similar cultures, from a backdrop that differs in the kinds of supernatural beliefs that are endorsed. In the U.S., adults are more likely to endorse religious beliefs and are more likely not to believe in evolution for religious reasons (Evans, 2008). In contrast, those in the U.K. are more likely to endorse scientific beliefs, including evolutionary theory (Kelemen, 2003). However, while U.K. students may be less likely to endorse religious supernatural beliefs, they are more likely to endorse spiritualist beliefs (Davies, 1988). In surveying the literature on the cultural variation of supernatural beliefs, Irwin (1993) concluded that the level of belief was partly a function of broader cultural environment. Relatedly, one proposal is that the human predilection for supernatural beliefs is universal and that culture and religions simply contextualize a natural way of thinking about the world (Hood, in press). If this is true, then cultures may vary in which objects are considered worthy, but all cultures will share a common judgment that authentic objects are worth more than inauthentic objects.

A third question of interest addressed by the current study is whether a personal history of sentimental attachment to objects is related to attitudes of authenticity in general. To date, there are no consistent findings to indicate that any personality factors predict why some children and not others form sentimental attachments to objects in a given family context (Passman, 1987). However early attachment history may identify individuals who are more susceptible to regarding objects as potentially special and valued in comparison to others who are less sentimental.

Based on the literature review above, we have three primary predictions:

  1. Hypothesis 1: We predict a main effect of authenticity, such that authentic objects should be rated higher than non-authentic objects on all scales.
  2. Hypothesis 2: We predict that a main effect of authenticity will hold up in two distinct cultural contexts, U.S. and U.K., with no cultural differences in the valuation of authentic vs. non-authentic items.
  3. Hypothesis 3: We predict that individuals who had an attachment object as a child will value authentic objects more.



Participants were 244 college undergraduates. The U.S. sample included 119 participants (62 women, 57 men; mean age 19) from a large, public university in the midwestern United States; the U.K. sample included 125 participants (98 women, 27 men; mean age 19) from a large, British university. All participants received partial course credit for their participation.


Participants received a questionnaire concerning 56 items (28 authentic and 28 inauthentic), with 5 sets of questions about each item (280 questions total). The authentic items comprised 4 major types: (a) Original creations (e.g., the very first lightbulb); N = 4 authentic; (b) Famous associations, regarding either people (e.g., an original painting by Picasso) or events (e.g., chairs pulled from the Titanic wreckage); N = 8; (c) Distant associations, regarding either locations (e.g., a rock from the moon) or time (e.g., dinosaur bone); N = 8; and (d) Personal associations, regarding either people (e.g., grandmother's wedding ring) or events (e.g., first dollar/pound earned from your thriving business); N = 8. The inauthentic items were matched to be as similar as possible to the authentic items (e.g., if the authentic item was a lightbulb, then the inauthentic item was also a lightbulb), but not sharing the important historical connection. There were slight variations in wording to accommodate minor differences in British and U.S. dialect and experiences (e.g., the name of a well-known jewelry store). All items are listed in the Appendix.

The key questions (and response options) were as follows:

  • Worth: "What do you think this is worth?" ("estimate in dollars" (U.S.) or "estimate in pounds" (U.K.))
  • Keep: "Is this worth keeping or would you throw it out?" (1 = "definitely throw out" to 7 = "definitely keep")
  • Own: "How much would you like to own this?" (1 = "not at all" to 7 = "very much")
  • Touch: "How much would you want to touch this?" (1 = "not at all" to 7 = "very much")
  • Museum: "Does this belong in a museum?" (1 = "not at all" to 7 = definitely")

Following authenticity judgments, participants filled out a brief questionnaire that asking 3 questions about their attachment history: “Did you possess a special comfort or attachment object, such as a stuffed toy or blanket, when you were a child?” “If so, what was it?” and “How old were you when you abandoned this object or do you still have it?”


Participants were tested individually or in small groups. Participants in the U.S. completed a pencil and paper version, while U.K. participants completed the study online. Items were blocked by question type (worth, own, keep, touch, and museum), with order of question type counterbalanced across participants. There were 4 orders of items used across subjects (two random orders and the reverse of those two orders); participants saw the items in the same order across all 5 questions.


For responses to each of the measures involving 7-point scales, an average score was computed over all of the items within a given type. The "worth" responses were first all converted to be on the same scale, as the British participants had been asked to provide responses in pounds and the American participants had been asked to provide responses in dollars. Occasionally participants responded with a descriptive rather than a monetary response (e.g., “worthless”; “priceless”). Descriptive responses indicating that the item had no value were given a value of 0; descriptive responses indicating that the item was so valuable as to be beyond monetary value were given a value equal to the highest numerical response provided by that participant. All responses were converted to dollar amounts (using the currency exchange rate for the time periods when the data were collected), modified with a log transformation in order to reduce the high variance and make the scores more normally distributed, and averaged over all of the items within a given type. For all measures, we then computed a difference score for each item type, of the mean response to the authentic items minus the mean response to the inauthentic items.

The first analyses examined the question of whether participants evaluated the authentic items more highly than the inauthentic items. To test this, we compared each of the difference scores against chance (0.00), using one-sample t-tests. As predicted, every item type was significantly greater than chance, for each question, all ps ≤ .001.

Next, the difference scores were entered into five separate ANOVAs (one for each of the key questions), including: item type (original creation, famous association, distant association, and personal association), cultural context (U.K., U.S.), participant gender (male, female), and participant attachment status (yes, no). This last distinction was based on participants’ response to the first question of the attachment questionnaire (namely, whether or not they had an attachment object as a child). Item type was a within-subject variable; cultural context, gender, and attachment status were between-subjects variables.

Although all item types show an authenticity effect (as shown above), the size of the effect differed as a function of the type of item and question, as shown in Figure 1, and as seen by the main effect of item type for each of the questions, Fs ranging from 6.40 (Own) to 899.44 (Museum), all ps < .001, eta-squared ranging from .03 (Own) to .79 (Museum). The profiles differ according to the aspect of authenticity in question (all post-hocs reported below are significant at p < .05, Bonferroni’s). When participants judged whether they wanted to keep the authentic item, the distant items scored highest, whereas when they judged how much the authentic item belongs in a museum, or how much they would pay for the item, the original creations scored highest. The personal associations generally received the lowest scores (least appropriate for display in a museum, least likely to be kept, least touch-worthy, and least monetarily valuable). Despite all these differences, all four item types were consistently high on the question of whether one would like to own them, with the only difference being that distant items were higher than original creations. The personal associations, for example, were highly rated in terms of something the participant would want to own, despite being viewed as lower on all the remaining measures.

Figure 1
Difference scores (authentic minus inauthentic score). Note: Museum, Keep, Own, and Touch are on a scale of −6 to +6. Worth is on an open-ended scale (log of scores).

Interestingly, we obtained significant item × gender interactions for three of the measures (keep, own, and touch), Fs (3, 708) ranging from 2.67 to 5.02, all ps < .05, eta-squared > .01. Post-hoc Bonferroni tests revealed that women scored significantly higher than men for all three measures, but only for the personal items (i.e., no gender differences were obtained for the original, famous, or distant items), all ps < .01.

We also obtained a significant main effect of attachment history for the worth measure, F(1,235) = 5.32, p < .05, eta-squared = .02. This indicated a small but significant effect, whereby those who had an attachment object as a child valued the authentic items relatively more highly than those who did not have an attachment object as a child (Ms = 1.77 and 1.46, respectively).

We obtained a significant main effect of cultural context for the worth measure, F(1,235) = 4.36, p < .05, eta-squared = .02. This indicated a higher difference score on the worth ratings in the U.K. than in the U.S. (Ms = 1.75 and 1.48, respectively).

There were two other significant effects, although neither was predicted or interpretable. There was a significant cultural context × gender interaction for the Own measure, F(1, 236) = 4.24, p < .05, eta-squared = .02, though none of the pairwise comparisons were significant. Finally, there was a 3-way interaction among item type, gender, and attachment on the Museum question, F(3, 705) = 2.84, p < .05. This analysis revealed that men without an attachment history were somewhat more likely to rate personal authentic items as belonging in a museum (M = 0.70), as compared to men with an attachment history (M = 0.15) or women without an attachment history (M = 0.19), although all such ratings were quite low, ps < .05, Bonferroni’s test.

To probe the relationships among and between the authentic item types more directly, we conducted a set of correlations, separately for each of the questions. These results can be found in Table 1. Original, famous, and distant items all intercorrelated on all of the questions. In contrast, personal items were uncorrelated with the other items for questions regarding museum placement and worth.

Table 1
Intercorrelations among item types

Finally, we conducted a separate analysis of those items for which participants indicated that an item was so valuable as to be beyond monetary value (typically indicated with the words “priceless” or “invaluable”). We conducted a t-test comparing the mean number of trials on which participants gave this response, comparing those with an attachment history (N = 192) to those without an attachment history (N = 52). This revealed a significant difference, t(241) = 2.62, p < .01 (assuming unequal variances), with those with an attachment history using “priceless” or “invaluable” more often than those without an attachment history (Ms = 0.47 and 0.11, respectively). This quantitative difference was also suggested by participants’ comments. For example, one respondent wrote, regarding “your favorite toy from when you were a child”: “I still have it and a price can not be put on it!”


The present study revealed powerful authenticity effects in university students in both the U.S. and the U.K.. Participants in both countries clearly judged authentic objects more highly on all dimensions compared to inauthentic objects. The generality of the effect rules out several interpretations raised in the Introduction. First, the judgments do not simply reflect rational economic decisions (e.g., rational assessment of the market values of certain objects), as judgments were high not only for economic judgments but also for wanting to own and touch the authentic items. Conversely, judgments do not simply reflect an emotional “halo” effect involving beloved people, because the effects encompass not only items with intrinsic emotional valence, but also items that are unrelated to particular people and are instead simply spatially or temporally remote. Finally, the authenticity effects do not reflect an overall bias to judge authentic items as better than inauthentic objects. This can be seen in the finding that objects with personal associations were judged not to be appropriate for museums. So, participants showed appropriate selectivity.

For the most part, there were no cultural (i.e., U.S. vs. U.K.) differences. The one exception was that the U.K. participants’ responses were overall higher than the U.S. participants’ on the “worth” dimension. We attempted to control for any scale differences between the dollar and the pound by converting scores to a common scale, based on the relative worth of each currency during the year of testing. However, it is possible that the cultural effect may simply reflect different values of monetary judgments made in the two countries. For example, if in both samples, people use similar anchors for high values (e.g., 1 million monetary units), this would result in a higher value for the U.K. participants than the U.S. participants, because of the relatively higher value of the pound than the dollar.

Although we did not predict gender differences, we found that women consistently judged authentic personal items more highly than did men. This result fits with the more general observation that women tend to value personal relationships and personal possessions especially highly (Dittmar, 1989, 1992).

Participants who had an attachment object as a child assigned higher monetary value to authentic versus inauthentic objects, compared to participants who didn’t have an attachment object as a child. In other words, those who had an attachment object as a child assigned higher monetary value to authentic objects in particular (i.e., they showed greater valuation of authenticity). They were also more likely to judge an authentic object as “priceless” or “invaluable”—that is, beyond monetary value.

Studies of apparent duplication reveal that one of the ways in which a bias towards authenticity becomes manifest is through explicit estimates of appreciation and value, and this appears to be early emerging (Hood & Bloom, 2008). Attachment history may simply be a marker for individuals who are more inclined to acknowledge the unique authenticity of objects, as this is one of the characteristic features of attachment object behavior. So far, there is no consistent explanation for why some children and not others develop significant emotional attachments to objects, other than that the behavior appears to be related to whether mothers are continuously available, especially at night (Gaddini & Gaddini, 1970). In fact, a longitudinal study of 260 children revealed that there was very little difference on a 40-item battery of personality and emotional measures rated by the mothers of children as teenagers who either had or did not have attachment objects as infants (Newson, Newson, & Mahalski, 1982). In short, children who become emotionally attached to security objects are not more insecure (Passman, 1987).

However, Hood (in press) has argued that inclination towards treating objects as unique and irreplaceable is the basis for many human object-oriented behaviors such as memorabilia collecting and reactions to moral contamination from others through contact with their possessions. This body of work can fit within a psychological essentialism framework in which we perceive the influence of others by means of their objects (Nemeroff & Rozin, 1994).

The main overall finding in the current study is that there is a broad appreciation of authenticity that translates into wanting to keep, own, hold, and value original items. We revere authentic items in public places such as museums, and we cherish our personal belongings in private. This study suggests that these behaviors are part of a larger phenomenon in which humans value originals over non-originals, treat celebrity commercial items as worthy of display and personal belongings as sentimental keepsakes. These attitudes and behaviors are so ubiquitous that one may be mistaken for even asking these questions in the first place: Why do we think like this and why are some of us more inclined to this than others?


This research was supported by an NSF graduate research fellowship to the first author, NICHD grant HD-36043 and a James McKeen Cattell sabbatical fellowship to the second author, and Leverhulme Trust as well as Esmée Fairbairn Grants to the last author.

Contributor Information

Brandy N. Frazier, University of Michigan.

Susan A. Gelman, University of Michigan.

Alice Wilson, University of Bristol.

Bruce Hood, University of Bristol.


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