supersense-uk-coverA few posts ago I described an exercise, based on a study in Bruce Hood’s new book Supersense…..

Imagine that you only have two objects in your house:
1) A £10 watch that was given to you by your partner and therefore has sentimental value.
2) Another watch that’s worth £1000 but has no sentimental value.

Your house catches fire, and you only have time to save one watch. Say whether you are male or female, and which watch you would save….

Lots of people responded, with the results showing an even split between the two options. Of course, it seems completely irrational to save the £10 watch and thus let £990 go up in flames. So why did so many people pick this option? Well, they might argue that the £10 watch has sentimental value, but what exactly does that mean?

If you think that the £10 is somehow imbued with the essence of your partner then you are being superstitious. Of course, you might argue that it simply reminds you of the good times the two of you have had together. Fair enough, but how would you feel if I replaced it with a watch that was absolutely identical (same scratches, markings, etc)? This replacement watch would have exactly the same memory-inducing properties, but most people reject the idea, saying they want THEIR watch. Again, this is irrational.

So, here is my question. Most people don’t like to think of themselves as superstitious, and laugh at those carrying lucky charms. But are we all a bit more superstitious than we like to think? Discuss.


  1. It has nothing to do with superstition, we all place a different value on certain items. My £10 watch is another man’s £1000 watch for the simple reason that there is meaning to it.

    For one person an engagement ring is simply a bunch of stones and some gold that could be used as a means to buy drugs, but for the husband and wife it holds an irreplaceable value because it is a symbol of their commitment and love. I fail to see the significance of superstition there.

    After all, a £1000 watch is only a £1000 watch because a jeweller says so and in today’s economic environment it keeps falling anyhow.

  2. Sentimental value does not always equal superstition though. To use a similar example, what if there’s another fire, and you have to choose between a lucky charm with sentimental value given to you by your partner 10 years ago, and a lucky charm with no sentimental value but is 1000 times as lucky?

    But then again, if you had to do that, neither lucky charm is working very well. =)

  3. I always viewed superstition as believing that A causes B, when there’s no rational causal link. Like the tribes that repeated what they were doing when war planes dropped aid packages (ok, can’t remember the exact story, but do you know the story I mean?) or the more common ones like ‘walking under a ladder causes bad luck’ etc.

    Having an emotional attachment to an object doesn’t strike me as superstition therefore. There’s studies I half remember about things like we value something more after we acquire ownership of it, which is why business offer things like returns and so on – we feel safe trying something out and then we attach to it and decide to keep it. But that doesn’t sound like superstition, even if it is irrational.

    Certainly the way we think is not always rational, there are all sorts of studies about that (which I’m assuming you’ll know way more about that me) and I can imagine that superstition falls in there as well – our tendency to attribute causal links where there are none seems fairly common – I just disagree that this is an example of that.

    I’m struggling to come up with better examples of mis-attribution of causal links where none exist that are easier to relate to, more hidden in ‘normal’ culture, but I still disagree with the watch story being about superstition.

  4. All good points, but remember the point here is that people are often reluctant to swap an object with sentimental value with one that is absolutely identical. Unless they are being irrational, thinking that the obejct is somehow imbued with something about their past or relationship, then it is difficult to understand their behaviour.

    1. What is wrong with being irrational, or behaving irrationally. Pi is irrational, unsolvable and yet it functions quite well as the mathematical basis of much of our “rational” understanding of the world. Your question implies that choosing based on sentimentality is wrong, and that choosing wrong is superstitious. There is no mathematical proof that a judgement based on monetary value is the more rational, better, or correct choice. This question only serves to illustrate a superstition that sentimentality has no rational value.

    2. I think everyone (at least in the comments that I’ve read) has missed an important part of the scenario. The replacement (or more expensive) watch will come with a memory of the replacement event, of the burning of the original watch. The replacement watch might be physically identical, but the memory won’t be the same. So no Richard, the replacement watch would *not* have exactly the same memory-inducing properties; it would induce a memory of the loss of the real watch, a far less pleasing memory than the original sentiment.

      There is nothing irrational about the memory of those events, and the preference for the more pleasant one.

    3. The question is surely whether one is aware of the substitution, or not. If not, then the idea that somebody would “prefer” the original watch to its duplicate is indeed irrational superstition: they would have no way of knowing that their watch was not in fact the original and would therefore believe it to be the same watch given them by their spouse.

      If they are aware of the substitution, however, then – in the knowledge that the watch is no longer that given them by their loved one – it is surely unsurprising that they would regard it as inferior to the “authentic” watch. There is more to this than memory, I feel; perhaps the idea that the object can in some way link people – at least in their minds – with those who held it before.

      In my mind the important question here is whether the substitution is made knowingly or not. Without this being answered (or at least addressed) I doubt any conclusion or consensus can be reached!

    4. The thing is, people are not rational – they act on emotions, and rationalize their actions later, trying to find such an axplanation for their act that most appeals to a facade they are trying to show to the world.

      The only way to make the answers believable would be to arrange such a situation, and check it experimentally. Any answers you get by questioning people are of low credibility, filtered through ego and inadequate to a dangerous situation where there’s no time for thinking.

      Rationally speaking, You gave a simple question – the answer should be simple. The fact is, most people would prefere not to make that choice – fearing reaction of the beloved one. I for example would not take any of the objects and run for life. If asked by my loved one why didn’t I take the memorable watch I’d answer “Honey, I was in such a hurry I didn’t think of taking anything” – an answer which would be impossible have I taken some other thing.

      Irrationally speaking, as a great fan of “Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy” before I would take any object, I’d make sure to get my towel first. 😉

  5. Yes I admit that I am subject to those superstitions..yes sentimental is superstition. Easily shown. If the ONE RING reminds you of someone/thing special then when you get Oldstimers you cant remember them/it and when you look at the sentimental object it wont help one bit. When I feel the magic of the ONE RING I will step back and analyze the situation then make a rational decision and in some cases I will surcome to the spell and keep My Precious.

  6. Puts me in mind of the reverse of such sentimentality:

    It’s necessarily irrational to invest inanimate objects with emotional meaning, yet we all do it to some degree. (Today I’ve been sorting books for the charity shop, and their personal associations often mean more to me than more rational considerations.) But irrationality is not superstition, as I’d define those terms: putting a subjective emotional value on something implies no suspension of the laws of nature. I could well be wrong in my interpretation, though.

    1. Superstition is a word .or a label that we use to explain something we do not understand. The watch is a weird explanation, of superstition. I would say that’s more of a memory of happier times with some one we loved, in the event of a fire if anyone’s grabbing a watch they need medical help. Memory’s are actually in the mind after all . So in theory grab the expensive watch . Xx

  7. One of the reasons that people collect autographs and other memorabilia, especially sports related, is that the object is a direct connection to that individual. Being a baseball fan, I would love to have a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. Not for the monetary value, but because I would know that Babe Ruth actually touched this ball. There is a connection between myself and the Bambino. It’s not spiritual, mystical, or superstitious, it’s just knowing that the greatest player to ever play the game of baseball touched this item.

  8. I don’t disagree with the choice of the £10 watch being economically unsound, but I strongly disagree with it being irrational. Choosing a cheaper object because it is unique to you personally is choosing emotion over finance, but not necessarily lacking in clear thought.

    As for refusing an perfect copy of a sentimental item, I don’t consider this superstitious either. Nor irrational, even in the context of having two watches – the expensive one and the perfect copy of the sentimental one. Irrational to me would be to grab one without thinking. To grab the closest one, the one furthest from the fire, the one that has emotional attachment or the one that has greatest economic value are all rational reasons to pick one to save.

    On a philosophical bent, just because it is difficult to understand a person’s behaviour without a certain explanation, does not mean that the chosen explanation is correct or even reasonable.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the conclusions you’re making, but I am personally finding the way they are described to be unclear at best, and possibly erroneous at worst. This could just be semantics, the different uses of the same word in different disciplines. (I have confusions with my partner who studied theology & philosophy – I studied maths – over the meaning of the word ‘rational’ for example, even if we’re both talking about rational thought, not numbers).

    Maybe I’m sucking the fun out of it, but to have an interesting conversation about superstition I’d like to have a clear understanding of what you mean by it.

  9. If a watch or other trinket reminds you of good times spent with someone you love, that has real measurable value. Perhaps not $990 worth of value — this depends on the person — but clearly non-zero.

  10. Yes, we are irrational. Even the most hard-core skeptics engage in irrational behaviour. I catch myself doing irrational stuff all the time.

    I think a lot of ‘rational people’ are delusional about how much irrationality drives their behaviour. Learning the psychological traps that we ALL fall into can help a lot.

    But I don’t know that irrationality automatically counts as ‘superstition’.

  11. BTW, Richard, you should start a thread where you get commenters to submit there own examples of irrational behaviour that they themselves do, or have done. I’ve got a couple of doozies.

  12. An object is more than its physical actuality. It’s “essence” isn’t my girlfriend’s essence. It’s the watch’s history. Objects are not only physical, but temporal. The “sentimental” watch has a history that the other watch doesn’t. At any specific time, it did not occupy the same space as the other watch. It was somewhere else. Its history of its location defines it, and makes it different from other, identical watches. The location at a point in time holds significance for us. My girlfriend put the sentimental watch in the location of my possession at a point in time. She did not put the other watch in the location of my possession at a point in time.

    1. I think this exact premise is superstitious because you are basically saying that this object somehow retained something from it being there at that time which of course it didn’t. You gained something, a memory and an associated feeling, but the object remained the same.

      Saying that a watch has a history because it is a temporal object is pseudoscientific. Objects are ultimately what WE make of them, without being pedantic (decay/scratches) they essentially do not change over time, they do not retain memory from an event. Thinking they do is irrational. We change not the object.

  13. Saying that it isn’t irrational to base a decision entirely on emotion strikes me as flat-out wrong. One might even argue that that is the definiton of irrational; the use of anything other than logic or reason upon which to base a decision.

  14. Often I find myself favoring things that people gave me, and giving them significant “value” – but I am not sure that it is out of superstition. In these cases, it seems to have more to do with memory – or my interpretation of my memory… Rethinking this now: what I might actually be doing is using these objects to fabricate a memory and a belief. self-inspired, it could very well be superstition.

  15. I am not superstitious and I choose the £1000 so I agree. 😉
    I am not a fan of misguided sentimentality which being emotionally attached to a watch (or other inanimate object) seems to me.

    You asked for gender when we answered – what did you find out from that?

  16. A specific watch has a unique history/timeline. In this case it is exactly the watch your partner chose to buy as a gift. Is it superstitious to recognize and value an objects historical timeline?

    Let’s say that we found an old sword once carried by a viking who lived hundreds of years ago. Now let’s say that we could make an exakt replica. Wouldn’t the original still have more value to us given its history? We can imagine all it has been through from the making, to the using and the laying in the ground for centuries. This cannot be said about the replica.

    Am I missing some aspect of magical thinking here?

    1. I suppose it is the difference between playing the guitar that Hendrix played rather than an guitar identical to the one that he played.

      I know what I would boast to my mates down the pub about.

  17. If I know it’s a replacement, I’m reminded of the nice quirkologist who gave it to me, not my partner. That said, if my sentimental watch is destroyed in a fire but I later manage to buy an identical one, I would not scoff the replacement.

    How is a celebrated painting reduced in value when it turns out to be a forgery?

  18. All very good points guys but just to get a little metaphysical here. Where is the history of the item stored? What do we mean by the original? Consider the possibility that every particle could be replaced so that there is no original material left. Nevertheless, we believe and act as if something has some residual property of identity. Consider a duplicating machine – why can we copy any object except sentimental ones? Food for thought.

    Thanks for the plug, Richard.


    1. It lies in our memory. Knowing the exact copy is fake affects the only real value it has. If one were to switch my cheap, sentimental watch for one without me knowing it would still achieve it’s desired effect. But as long as I know it’s the wrong one it’s effect is altered.

      It’s primarily a blinding issue. Just as with a placebo if you think your forged artwork is real it brings you joy.

      I’m not convinced superstition is the best label for this, though I can’t think of a better one.

  19. IMHO, the word ‘superstition’ does not fit well here. Superstition is not mere irrationality, its irrationality plus anxiety and/or fear. In the case you depict, simple irrationality is pitted against emotions/attachment. There is no fear involved. One could construct a case like – would (married) couples give away their newborn babies for a sufficiently large sum of money ? A child can be bore again, so, rationally, one should exchange it for an appreciable amount of money. But, emotions/attachment come in the way and so, hardly any couple would choose to take the money.

    1. I think it is irrational to compare attachment to an object with attachment to a living creature.

      I think superstition fits well. I think if you read all the comments again you will find anxiety/fear among the people who see the watch as somehow being embedded with the “essence” of their loved ones. Their fear of losing that is why they choose to overlook the more valuable watch in the fire.

  20. I agree with KingOfAnkh here. This is entirely about what we value.

    My local art gallery has a Picasso “Weeping Woman” painting. He painted dozens of these, and there’s very little difference between them. However, this one has a higher insurance value than most, because it was once stolen in a high-profile robbery.

    Consider this scenario:

    You’re in charge of a library. There’s a fire, and you can only carry one book out of the library. (Say, you need to shield it from the flames, and there’s only room for one book in whatever you’re using for shielding.) The book that you manage to grab is a first edition of “On the Origin of Species”. It’s in pretty good condition.

    But on the way out, you notice another book you could swap it for. It’s also a first edition of “On the Origin of Species”. It’s in a slightly worse condition. Some of the corners are a little dog-eared. Oh, and it’s the copy that Thomas Henry Huxley owned.

    Do you swap or not?

    I guess the point is that money is not everyone’s primary concern. I’m certainly surprised that it is for Richard.

    1. To stop from leaving a building that is on fire to swap out a book is irrational. I would not have risked my life for either. There are plenty of copies of the book out there, I see no reason to get sentimental over the first edition. And who once owned it does not change the inherent value of the book.

  21. I would defintely prefer the orginal watch to the identical copy, nothing to do with superstition, the original has been handled by my beloved the copy has not. Following this through to its conclusion an autograph collector should be just as happy with a photocopy of someones autograph as the original, an identical copy of the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre would be no different to the original and a Dr Who fan would be just as happy owning a replica dalek as to having one that was screen used. None of these statements are correct – the original has the history and that is importnat.


  22. I was just looking at some photos of a trip we took to Europe over Christmas, and thoughts about your question occurred to me, Richard.

    Most of the photos I took aren’t fabulous in the picture post-card sense. Maybe the weather’s a little grey, or someone in it distracts from what I’d intended to be the focus of the picture. Yet, given the choice of framing one of these photos and framing a photo of the same view more perfectly taken by someone else, I would always choose my own photo.

    This is, I think, comparable with holding more dear the watch with the sentimental significance. It’s not superstition. It’s a fondness for the thing itself.

    If you had the choice between a fine piece of antique furniture and an excellent reproduction that was identical to all but the most talented experts, I suspect that you’d prefer the former, even if you were never allowed to reveal to anyone that it was genuine, and were never allowed to sell it or pass it on to your offspring. I can’t see how that could be superstition. It’s just an appreciation for the thing, and its antiquity and history is an intrinsic part of what it is.

  23. To add a bit…. I agree with Pranav Peshwe that superstition and emotional sentimentality aren’t the same. They might both be irrational, but much of human psychology is irrational. And that’s not a bad thing.

    I seem to recall reading (perhaps in one of Oliver Sacks’ or V.S. Ramashandran’s books? Or perhaps Antonio Damasio?) of a brain injury that rendered the sufferer incapable of emotion. As a result, his life fell apart. He was left in an angst of indecision, whereby trying to choose, say, between a chocolate and a strawberry ice cream left him paralysed.

    Emotion is a profound part of even our rational selves. Indeed, I think that dividing the psyche into “rational” and “irrational” is a false dichotomy. Superstition is an entirely different aspect of psychology.

  24. Worth is a value put on something by someone; just because something is more expensive doesn’t mean it’s WORTH more.

    Not sure if I would call it superstition when what you’re doing, in essence, is keeping a memory. After all, that’s why we take photographs and save keepsakes.

    Wanting to hold onto a memory isn’t really superstitious.

  25. My insurance covers monetary value, not sentimental value. So it makes more sense to rescue irreplaceable items of sentimental value such as photographs and keepsakes.

  26. I’m not sure what to answer.

    First of all, I think that superstition should be linked to the concept of trying to get control over incoming events (i.e.: a luccky charm to avoid future problems). Here we are talking about emotional value.

    In this case I think it depends on the emotional meaning you give to an object. I asume it would be different for me if the 10$ watch reminds me of my dead father or if it’s my last birthday present. Being emotional does’t mean being superstitious. Emotional value doesn’t imply magical value.

    The question here is if rational behaviour is better than emotional behaviour. I think that depends on the situation. Pretending that we should be rational in every situation in our lives could be wrong. Is our favotite film the one that has better photography ans soundtrack? or is the one we have a great time with?

    There are situations in our life when we have to be more emotional than rational, and it’s good! When your 4 years old son gives you a drawing of you two, should you comment about the proper use of perspective? Maybe not.

    If your house has burnt, what will be more usefull? Having 1000$ or having something more emotional that can give you psichological strenght when you try to rebuild your house?

    I don’t say that emotion is more important thant rationality. But it’s not more rational to deny the importance of emotions. We probably should find the proper balance between rationality and emotions in our life. It’s an art. The art of being human.

    (Sorry for the English)

  27. I agree with everyone who thinks saving the £10 watch isn’t superstitious. (Unless you save it because you think it brings you luck or bad luck will come if you don’t, that is. Or you’d have to walk under a ladder in order to get to it, maybe.) Whether it’s rational or not is another question…

    My watch from my boyfriend has sentimental value to me because I know he gave me *that* watch. If it was replaced with an identical one without my knowing, it would make no difference to me, because I still perceive it as the watch he gave me. If you *told* me it had been replaced with an identical one (even if it hadn’t) then the sentimental value would decrease, because it’s what I know about the history of the watch that gives it sentimental value.

    Maybe this is irrational in that sentimental value is subjective so doesn’t follow measurable scientific or mathematical principles, but as forming emotional attachments is part of our evolution (perhaps to places as much as to people – so why not objects as well?) then there may be perfectly rational reasons why we don’t behave rationally :o)

  28. My brother-in law owned a nice watch. I admired it, so my wife said she’d get one for my birthday. I suggested I wear it straight away – why wait for my birthday, which has little significance for me, but she refused.

    The birthday came, I wore the watch for some month’s.

    One day I found an identical watch in its box hidden away in a cupboard. Turned out my wife had hid the original she’d bought in a ‘safe place’ so I wouldn’t find it and be tempted to wear it; but come my birthday she’d forgotten where she’d hidden it. So she borrowed her brother’s ‘for a few days’ until she could find ‘mine’. She never did find it, so, when months later I discovered it, the whole story came out.

    I asked what sentimental value I should impart on each watch and in what proportion, since one was intended for my birthday but not actually given, and one was given but was not actually mine. I’m still waiting for an answer.

  29. Perhaps this is descending into a semantics debate. Define ‘superstitious’, define ‘sentimental’, etc.

    The definition someone gave earlier of ‘rational’ being decisions based on logic and reason seems ok to me, so by that defition, I think it’s actually sensible to save the watch that will give you greater benefit in the future. There is no reason to assume that benefit has to be financial. If the loss of the watch-with-the-history would cause you great emotional pain, it’s perfectly rational to save it over the other one.

    Replacing the watch-with-history with an identical one…hmm. It depends on the history, I’d say. For example, my father, now dead, had a leather wallet on him when he died, which my mother gave to me. I carried it for years and years and it gave me comfort. Why? Because my father had touched that wallet every single day for years, physically. Replacing the wallet with an identical one couldn’t compensate for that aspect, because the duplicate wallet would never have been touched by him. The creases in it, the wear and tear, would not have been caused by his everyday handling of the object.

    The wallet itself gave me great emotional comfort, because although the man was gone, something he’d touched every day remained. Scant comfort, but it all helps. Rather that than a belief in the afterlife.

    I don’t see how you could define that behaviour as superstition, though. I didn’t think that anything bad would happen if I lost the wallet (indeed I don’t know where it is now), I didn’t think it had any magical properties. It was just an ordinary wallet with a history. The history has a value which is equal or greater to the £1000 wallet, or whatever. Therefore, I choose to save it.

    If we’re to say that that comfort is meaningless, then we’re being sadly inhuman. I’m not even sure I care if we’re labelling it ‘superstition’. I’d say “I disagree with the definition, but if you want to use that, then fine, I’m superstitious in this specific case, but in no other.” I’d probably then redefine the word ‘chimney’ to include ‘all winged creatures’ then call the RSPCA on you, though. 😛

  30. This is fascinating.

    Sentimental feelings towards an object are obviously emotional, emotional connections can be and often are irrational. I concede that wanting to keep your specific object over a supposedly identical object seems irrational. However your personal perception of an object it what gives it its sentimental value you cannot shift this knowledge to a different object just because it looks the same. I do not think then that this object would have the same memory inducing properties because you would know about the switch. Perhaps this is irrational, but your original statement was about superstition not rationality. I think the connection that you have made is a non sequitur.

    Superstition is irrational, sentimentality is irrational this does not mean that sentimentality is superstitious.

  31. Thinking about it, I’ve been in a similar situation. I have a ring that I always wear as my mother bought it for me just at random, for no reason, and it’s the only example I can think of where she’s ever done this.

    (Actually the full story is, we were in the mall and my little sister wanted a new bag and my mum said she’d buy it for her, then turned to me and said “I’ll buy you something too, what do you want?” – most uncharacteristic!).

    One time I was sitting on the outside terrace of a cafe at night playing with my ring. I dropped it and it went in between the slats of the terrace to some grotty, grungy area underneath. The next day I went back and tried to find it. I even made two baristas climb down into an alcove bit so they could reach underneath the decking to look for it – and I finally saw it after they were prepared to give up I think! Naturally I left a very large tip.

    I know that I could have gone back to the same shop and bought another ring just the same – maybe even my mother would have bought it for me if I’d explained the situation and how upset I was. But then it would remind me of how silly I was not to take care of the things most valuable to me, not my mother’s original kindness. Even if she had bought me a new one, it wouldn’t be the same.

    The point I am trying to make is that I think it’s a lot to do with our perceptions of objects. Have you ever noticed how children will want one specific thing – e.g. I want THAT cupcake – and when you try to give them another one more or less identical they’ll refuse it because “it’s not the same”? Maybe it is irrational but I think our associations with objects are a lot more important than the objects themselves.

  32. It is not irrational to choose the 10-quid watch.

    Rather, it could absolutely be the most rational solution.

    Neither watch provides any free money unless you want to go and sell it. So, if you want to sell it, choose the 1000-quid watch.

    If you want a watch to keep, choose which you prefer to wear. You might want something flashy, or you might want something personal — both are sentimental urges.

    The argument of “it’s worth 1000 quid” can be entirely irrational – and greedy people often fall into the irrational “value” trap when buying “discounted” or “bargain” items they do not need.

    To drive the point home – maybe both watches cost the same to produce and function equally well, but the “valuable” one bears a brand name.

    Finally, if you did want real economic gain from the saving second watch, why did you buy the thing in the first place?… it will not be accumulating value over time.

    1. …. so to sum up:

      I strongly maintain that the 10-quid people are free from irrational attachment to unused economic “value”.

    2. It is not just greedy people who choose the second watch. It is people without money. If one has just lost their house to a fire then they might need to sell the watch for the money. Therefore there is nothing rational about saving the cheap watch.

      Sentimentality is a luxury that many cannot afford. And it is an irrational luxury at that.

    3. Yup, I agree with that.

      That’s why I said that it is only rational to save the 1000-quid watch *IF* you intend to sell it at some point (and I did consider that the fire may make such behaviour reasonable). Otherwise there is no real world benefit discrepancy between the two.

      The “greed” bit was a slightly different issue – just pointing to the fact that economic “value” can have it’s own irrationality and some bargain-buyers will actually lose money buy trying to gain unliquidisable (if that’s a word!) “value”.

  33. As soon as you know that the watch is replaced by an ‘identical’ one, you will feel that you have somehow lost the exact feelings and thoughts that went with the watch in the first place. That is a ‘real’ loss in that our feelings and thoughts have a very real effects on us.
    I think you could consider it rational, or smart, to be emotionally attached to objects if they give you positive thoughts and feelings. As in rational superstition. Of course the downside is you can lose the objects and the effect of that is negative. It’s a lot like love, actually. Is love superstition?

  34. I agree with many of the people here in saying that sentimental value is not the same as a superstitious belief. Superstition is irrational, but irrational isn’t necessarily superstitious. For me, sentimental value has to do with identity; items have an identity that is unique to each item. Yes that identity is completely created by me and my perception of that item and is somewhat irrational. I also might argue that not accepting an identical item is an irrational action. I don’t think the refusal itself is irrational, even if the attachment to that item is irrational. That refusal is based on a very logical and rational reason; it’s not the same item. Its not irrational to acknowledge that two different items even though exactly the same in every way are in fact different items. The emotional attachment may not be with a watch that looks like this, but with this watch, and giving me another one no matter how much it looks like this one, its still not this watch. Yes the attachment may be irrational, but the acknowledgment that the watch you’re trying to replace it with is not the same watch is not irrational. Not all emotional attachments are this way, I have a large collection of photo’s that I am sentimental about, if you were to replace them with exact copies I could care less, my attachment isn’t with the physical photo, its with the image.

  35. I picked the $1000 watch! 😀

    Hm… I’m not sure that this is a QED on the superstitious subject.
    I think that we all want to feel that we are unique in this world, so we would also try to assign this idea of uniqueness to other things around us.

  36. “If you think that the £10 is somehow imbued with the essence of your partner then you are being superstitious.”
    No! Then you are romantic!
    “How would you feel if I replaced it with a watch that was absolutely identical?”
    Well, that’s all the point with cloning pets, isn’t it? And I feel very “disgusted” about it. And by the way, THAT is quite SUPERSTITIOUS!

  37. I fail to see how superstition has anything to do with the decision.

    It would make me happy if my girlfriend chose to rescue a gift I had given her, and I would hope the opposite is true.

    Golden Rule, etc. Quite rational.

  38. OK so I had to look it up, here’s what I got


    1 a: a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation b: an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition2: a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary


    1 a: marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism b: resulting from feeling rather than reason or thought

    While they are similar there are differences.

    Superstition is about worry and ignorance, sentiment is about memory and emotion. I do agree that if one were to believe in a supernatural power held by objects of sentiment then yes, that would be irrational. But that’s not what sentiment means to people. It’s a tool that helps remind us of things we hold dear, that’s not the same as fear of a misunderstood non-causal relationship.

    For one thing sentiment works and superstition does not. Things do remind us of the past and in that they have value. Granted the value is endowed by our memory, the object has nothing beyond a familiarity that triggers an emotional response, but the response is real and that makes the object valuable. In losing that object we also lose a link to the past and that affects us emotionally.

    As I mentioned before, in a blinded situation where we were unaware that the object was switched with an identical copy, the copy would have the same power. But when we are aware of the switch there is a known loss associated with the new object. While it still might trigger the original sentiment it would additionally trigger the loss of the valued original. The new sentiment would not be the same.

    While emotion and sentiment are not based on reason they are part of the natural function of the brain. As such I consider it irrational to not consider them while pondering a question such as this. It’s part of the equation and if you ignore it your logic will be incomplete.

    I am not superstious, I am sentimental. I think there’s a difference.

  39. F*** girlfriend’s watches.

    Lp versus CD versus MP3.

    How much irrational is that?

  40. I dunno. I don’t see choosing the £10 watch as being a superstitious choice. I don’t feel any object carries any mystical properties, but I do carry an emotional attachment to some things. Sentimental, sure, but I’d argue not superstitious. Also, sometimes, I just like a certain things regardless of monetary value. Money isn’t generally that important to me.

  41. Richard – you get it wrong.

    If you replace an object with sentimental value with an identical one, the fact that you is aware of the change will corrupt the sentimentality link to the object.

    One may start to think of the fact that it has been changed rather than thinking about the good memories.

  42. It is rational to accept the reality of and the real practical value in our lives of irrational (including sentimental) thoughts and behavior.

    It is rational to agree that logical reasoning is a powerful thinking mode/tool that is usually less in evidence than most situations need it, but there are significant aspects of life where there other thinking modes are more valuable.

    I believe the “logical necessity of creativity” has been established by Edward de Bono decades ago and Dr. Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology (and Daniel Goleman’s on EQ) has scientifically and rationally established the importance of non-rational matters.

    It is (probably!) rational for Richard to state something deliberately provocative and get us all to so beautifully clarify sentimentality = irrationality but sentimentality NOT = superstition.

    1. Or maybe he’s trying to get us to admit that superstition can be a good thing!

      That’s the cool part of deconstruction: you’re never wrong.

    2. Or, that the superstition really is that it is a rational decision to take the expensive watch.

  43. Well I think this has got us all thinking about the differences or similarities between sentimentality and superstition which actually is a good debate. I have just finished the book Richard was talking about “SuperSense” by Bruce Hood and actually he doesn’t equate superstition with sentimentality (as I read it) and actually has a number of very interesting and valid examples on both. What I got from his argument was that humans in some way have feelings about inanimate objects that we have imbued with an “essence” which is indefinable but important to us as a race. His argument I think, is that we need to have these feelings and they are important for us as a society but they are irrational although irrationality may not always be a bad thing. Superstitions are not necessarily sentimental but both superstition and sentimentality are, although irrational, important in our development in early childhood and therefore important in our development of relationships with others and the development of our society. I hope I haven’t done the author a disservice by interpreting the book in this way, perhaps others who have read it might want to comment and disagree if I haven’t understood correctly??

  44. What I’m missing in this discussion is that there is not really any thought to what other consequences choosing the expensive watch might have.
    Would your partner consider you to be a calculating bastard and dump you? Surely you wouldn’t throw the cheap watch away if you’d think they’d not take kindly to it. Does this not all subconciously figure into your decision making process?

    Alas, I couldn’t care about some dumb watch, I’d save as many hard drives as possible. I know it’s not an option here but I really don’t see value in individual items anymore if a copy is identical (and sharing is a good thing ™ ). Child of the digital generation, eh?

  45. What John said. I’d save the $10 watch so my wife didn’t kill me.

    In all seriousness though, unless I had intentions of selling the $1000 watch, I would save the $10 because money isn’t the issue. And yes, I would settle for the identical watch.

  46. Would it be sentimental for the Louvre not to agree to swap Mona Lisa for an exact copy and a few thousand dollars?

    People would not mind the swap if they did not know about it, but, once they do, they know that the object is “fake”. When they look at a scratch, they can’t “remember that John dropped the watch during the holidays in 1970”, because they are acutely aware of the fact that this scratch is not the same one – because they KNOW it is not. You argue that the memories stay the same. The point is that they do not, not if you know that the object is not the same.

  47. What I find really interesting is the value that cultural, emotional and historical significance lends and/or imbeds in an object. Like Schrodinger’s cat is it our intention and attention that determines an object’s molecular integrity? An item cherished for centuries will survive it’s duplicate relegated to the scrap heap. Another, never intended by it’s maker to last for centuries, survives, while a scientifically more sophisticated attempt perishes?

    The crux of all these arguments is whether human intent or attention binds with an object in a causal way at a quantum, or as yet undiscovered level of mechanics? If so, can it be measured, and it’s potential be used and/or exploited? Does an object record and hold the evolving information of it’s history? Can we at some level of awareness read and understand information stored in an object by holding it in our hands or being in it’s presence?

    As far as I can tell the scientific jury is still out, evidenced by why we are still engaging in these discussions.

  48. Worth is a superstitious concept, Richard. Ascribing worth to a watch is a superstitious act, whether the account is measured in emotional attachment, or in currency. The moment we set a price on something, whether inwardly (through sentiment) or outwardly (through money), we are calling on the gods to work their charm in our favor. I don’t think we can separate the ingredients in the phenomena of worth, they belong to the same reality. Sentimental worth is what we make of it and it is as real and objective a measure of value as any market guide to prices. So – go ahead and save that old crappy watch without guilt!!!

  49. Just because something doesn’t make sense to you, it’s unfair to call that decision “irrational” when other people are doing the deciding. You do not share their experience, therefore they may have more information that you do not.

    The difference between a sentimental object from a friend and an exact replica is that my friend only touched the original. I’d be happier with the replica that most people (I suspect), but would still value the “real” object more. The reason is NOT that I believe it’s infused with any magic, that is your faulty assumption because you can’t imagine my real reason for thinking thus.

    I’ll give a specific example. I have an object that I bought for a friend as a gift, but never gave to her. I was in the habit of acquiring gifts for said friend over time, which I would give to her randomly as we met or ship things when she needed cheering up. She died suddenly at a young age, and I was left with several presents and no one to give them to. The lesson I learned from that experience was very powerful.

    When I am upset because I miss my friend (after almost 10 years no loss is quite so sharp as that one, even when it was a more intimate contact lost), or because I am in a situation where I feel that my time is wasted, holding the object provides a real benefit in terms of my brain chemistry. I can feel my autonomic response system respond to the object. Whether or not it’s a rational response, the response is real and I believe it is rational of me to use such a valuable tool for self-control. Objects that have been handled by my friends, were found in special locations, etc. have an even more powerful effect.

    It’s irrational to dismiss sentimentality as irrational and ignore entire aspects of one’s own consciousness. You’re right that using logic for self-control Vulcan-style is valuable, but even the Vulcans lose control sometimes and there’s a reason for that.

  50. Haven’t read all 66 replies but my guess is that we cling to our stories and our identity – so this is actually what we are saving from the fire. The symbols that constitute our history and identity are just valuable to us as goods that can be sold

  51. You say, “people reject the idea, saying they want THEIR watch. Again, this is irrational.” But if it is not the same watch regardless of how well reproduced it still not the same watch. That’s not irrational. That’s being clear about the relationship to a particular object in and of itself.

  52. I think the choice-criteria people process in this scenario are actually rather rational. In contrast, the option presented by our beloved R. Wiseman is laced with an irrational bias. The choice to me is rather like this:

    a) Pick the watch with ‘sentimental’ value and come out of the fire with a boost in moral and an emotional fortification that allows you to overcome the dramatic and devastating fire. This watch will be tangible proof of your power to overcome the tragedy. It will give you a sense of control (which is a VERY high priced commodity for humans).

    b) Pick the 1000 pound watch and … well what?!? Nothing really. The only way you can get something out of it is to surrender it for cash (being defeated a second time). And then what ?!?!? The little it gives you doesn’t even help to build a single wall of a new house. Compared to the loss of a house by fire and the dramatic experience, the 1000 pounds do simply not signify enough.

    After the tragedy, the sentimental watch will create an even stronger and lasting ‘energy flow’ that out-ranks the one-time ‘cash-flow’ of the 1000 pound watch. So to me the choice for the watch with sentimental value seem rather rational.

    Now….raise the value of the 1000 pounds watch to a 1,000,000 pounds and you can buy a couple new big houses….. things begin to shift then…..

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