Dec 25

Would you pay $76 for a shot glass? What about $52 for an oven mitt? And $50 for a jar of marbles?

You may shake your head and say no way, but in a recent series of eBay auctions, the consumers did just that: they shelled out considerable cash for objects that to all appearances should never have fetched more than a couple bucks.

So what made the difference? Each item came with a unique tale.

The auctions were part of the Significant Objects Project, an experiment designed to test the hypothesis that “narrative transforms the insignificant into the significant.” Or, put differently, the goal was to determine whether you could take an object worth very little and make it worth much more by giving it a story, by endowing it with meaning.

To that end, the project’s originators – NY Times columnist Rob Walker and author Josh Glenn – bought up 100 unremarkable garage sale knickknacks for no more than a few dollars each, and then had volunteer writers whip up fictional back stories for them. This, they thought, would up the trinkets’ objective value.

They were right. Whereas the objects had cost Walker and Glenn a total of $128.74 to buy, the same trinkets netted a whopping $3,612.51 on eBay when paired with stories. This Russian figurine, for example, came with the original price tag of $3 but sold for $193.50. And this kitschy toy horse made the leap from $1 to $104.50. (See also:$76 shot glass, $52 oven mitt, $50 jar of marbles)

The results may seem surprising, but this is actually something we see all the time. It’s the basic idea behind the endowment effect, the theory that once we own something, its value increases in our eyes. (In one study, Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler (1990) randomly divvyed up participants into mug owners and buyers, and found that whereas owners requested around $7 for their mugs, the buyers would only pay an average of $3.)

But ownership isn’t the only way to endow an object or service with meaning. You can also create value by investing time and effort into something (hence why we cherish those scraggly scarves we knit ourselves) or by knowing that someone else has (gifts fall under this category).

And then there’s the power of stories: spend a fantastic weekend somewhere, and no matter what you bring back – whether it’s an upper-case souvenir or a shell off the beach – you’ll value it immensely, simply because of its associations. This explains the findings of the Significant Objects Project, and also how other things like branding works

Irrationally yours

Dan