The Transformative Power of a Narrative

Can a nar­rat­ive attached to an every­day object increase its object­ive value? That was the ques­tion posed by Rob Walk­er (author of The New York Times’ Con­sumed column) and Joshua Glenn (author of Tak­ing Things Ser­i­ously) when they star­ted the Sig­ni­fic­ant Objects Pro­ject—an exper­i­ment designed to test wheth­er a series of stor­ies cre­ated about an object will increase its selling price.

After buy­ing 100 “unre­mark­able” objects with an aver­age price of just under $1.29 each, the two advert­ised them for sale along­side nar­rat­ives cre­ated by volun­teers. They then sold for a total of $3,612.51—more than 28 times their ori­gin­al price.

Dan Ari­ely of Pre­dict­ably Irra­tion­al dis­cusses the pro­ject and its find­ings:

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. […] 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 […] 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.

2 thoughts on “The Transformative Power of a Narrative

  1. Kris Verdeyen

    The effect being described here seems sim­il­ar to what hap­pens in a lot of food sales. What is “fair trade” if not a nar­rat­ive about a formerly-oppressed farm­er carving out a liv­ing by selling his wares for what once seemed like an impossible for­tune? The same with organ­ic, cage free, “cruelty-free”, etc. The actu­al product is well-nigh indis­tin­guish­able from its story-free cous­ins, but we pay more because of the story that comes with it.

  2. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    Very inter­est­ing; thanks Kris.

    I would nev­er have con­nec­ted these two together–excellent.

    I espe­cially agree with extend­ing this thought to oth­er such sys­tems: organ­ic, sus­tain­able, ‘green’ man­u­fac­tur­ing, etc. All of them, to some extent, are based on a nar­rat­ive.

    Again, thanks.

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