Have you ever wondered why people pay large sums for sports memorabilia? No one would pay £10 for a dirty, stained jersey let alone £2.8million, unless that jersey had been worn by baseball legend Babe Ruth. Similarly, a pen mark on a football shirt would devalue it in most instances. However, if that mark was made my Christano Ronaldo the item increases value by hundreds of pounds.
Research suggests that the obsession of many with sporting collectables may be due to contagion; the belief that an object maintains the qualities of those that have previously been in contact with it, which may be passed on to those to subsequently touch it. Contagion may be positive, in which the individual’s appreciated characteristics are believed to be possessed by an object, or negative, where the item holds their adverse attributes.
The majority of contagion studies come from research fields other than sport. Rozin et al. (1986) found the value assigned to blouses depended upon whether a person liked the individual who had previously worn it, even after thorough cleaning. Similarly, Nemeroff & Rozin (1994) found that participants were less willing to wear a sweater depending on who they believed had worn it.
The most interesting research on contagion comes from Lee et al.’s (2011) study that investigated the influence of positive contagion on perception and performance in sport. Lee investigated these effects using 41 golfers who were randomly assigned to the positive contagion or control condition. In the contagion condition, participants were told they were using a putter that had previously been used by Ben Curtis, a PGA golfer. Those in the control condition were provided the same putter but were not told this. Before taking ten putts from a two meter range, the golfers were asked to draw how big they believed the hole to be.
Lee’s research found that those who believed that were using Ben Curtis’s putter believed the hole was 9% larger than those in the control condition. Furthermore, those in the contagion condition putted significantly better than those in the control group. The researchers suggest that the increased confidence and self-efficacy that those in the experimental condition benefitted from was responsible for their favourable perception and greater performance.
Lee’s research further demonstrates the existence of contagion and therefore supports the hypothesis that contagion is responsible for the widespread interest in sporting memorabilia. However, aside from making the children’s film Like Mike (in which an orphan finds a pair of Michael Jordan’s basketball shoes and later becomes highly skilful at the sport when he wears them) a little less realistic, Lee’s findings currently have few direct applications. By this I mean those that have a putter used by Rory McIlroy in the past are more likely to put it in a glass cabinet than take it to the course.
Despite the lack of current application until further research follows Lee’s study, speculation around the real world use of the findings exist. For example, would wearing the Adidas F50 Adizero football boots provide any of these benefits after only viewing Messi play in them or would he need to physically wear them? Similarly, would deceiving a rugby kicker that needed a boost in confidence by telling them that Dan Carter had used their kicking tee have adverse effects in the long run despite the short term benefits (although unethical)? We can currently only hypothesise and experiment ourselves until research looks into positive contagion further. Despite this, the findings from Lee’s study remain highly interesting and it is in no doubt that this phenomenon will be under much research in the future.