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 responses to “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. 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.