(credit: MemoryCatcher)

Influence from beyond the grave

How our relationship with a dead person guides the choices we make

Have a look around you, and pick the first object that your eye catches. How much is it worth, would you say? Maybe you’re trying to remember what it cost to buy, or perhaps you wonder how much you might sell it for. Markets where things are bought and sold give us the idea that objects (or indeed services) have an objective value — the market price. But that is not necessarily so.

Arguably, a generic pair of shoes might be worth a very similar amount to anyone who doesn’t have any shoes yet. But what if you’ve just bought a pair? Would an identical second pair be worth the same to you as the first one? It would duplicate something you already have, so probably not. If you were going to spend the same amount again, you might prefer a different style, or maybe some specialist footwear.

Perhaps you’d even be prepared to pay more for specialist shoes anyway because they are essential for a particular use. A good pair of tennis shoes might be worth more than a decent normal pair, and a well-known brand might be more valuable than one from a German discount store — for those who wish to play tennis. But someone who prefers gardening might value a pair of wellington boots more highly and not even pay a fiver for two tennis shoes.

Could a used pair be worth more than a brand new one? It depends who used it — at least for some people: a £70 ($100) pair of trainers that was previously owned by the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, sold at auction for $2,000 (£1420). If the buyer has the same sizeable feet as Mr Cumberbatch (UK size 11), they could continue to enjoy the use, although having paid that much, they might prefer to put them in a display cabinet instead.

So establishing ‘the’ value of a pair of trainers — or of any object — seems pretty tricky, and the market is not really helping. Value is much more in the eye of the beholder than in that of the market. True, many objects do have some relatively objective practical use. A plate can be used to put food on, and pictures can be hung on the wall to embellish a room. But almost always, the significance to you — which is what truly determines the value to you — is about more than just the functional use.

Even for people with no interest in celebrity or brands, objects can have great significance over and above their direct practical utility. This often becomes apparent when a relative dies, and their possessions need to be disposed of. Sure, sometimes the heirs have a specific unmet need that is addressed by one of the deceased’s belongings; in other cases, they are able to find a use for another set of wine glasses or a small fridge.

Cheap treasure

However, recent personal experience suggests that practicality is by far not the only thing that matters. Of course, some items may have sentimental value — the tacky miniature Eiffel tower your grannie brought back from her honeymoon in Paris, that you remember being on her mantel from when you were just this tall, or your dad’s beloved fountain pen. Objects without any objective market value, yet they are treasures to you.

But it would seem something else is at play as well. When as an heir you’re tidying up the deceased’s possessions, you can feel a very intense feeling of ownership. A folding table, an old cassette deck, a pile of DVDs — items that you would not even consider buying for 50p at a car boot sale, now seem very hard to let go. It’s as if your legal ownership combines with the expired ownership of your departed relative, to produce a super endowment effect. And so you end up with an extra folding table, a cassette deck with a broken fast forward button, and 100 DVDs, some with movies that you’ve never even heard of.

Our relationship with the dead reveals something else about what drives our choices, which doesn’t even involve material items. It seems most of us have a strong tendency to fulfil the wishes of the deceased. Sometimes a will gives these wishes legal power, stipulating conditions upon the distribution of the dead person’s assets, but we generally don’t need the force of law and written instructions to do ‘what he or she would have wanted’.

Introspection is not necessarily a good guide to understanding general human behaviour, but think about it: would you go against the express, or even the implied wishes of a dead relative? Would you arrange a (cheaper) cremation (and inherit more), even if you knew they wanted a (more expensive) proper grave with a tombstone? If you promised someone you’d scatter their ashes at sea, would you decide against all that trouble, and just dump them with the trash once funeral is over?

Most people would do their utmost to fulfil the wishes of a dead person. Perhaps they’d do so because they know others are aware of those wishes, and they want to avoid the social disgrace of being seen to disregard them. Perhaps they are religious, and believe that the spirit of the deceased still exists and can observe them — a kind of internal watching-eyes effect (which, by the way, has been found to be very weak or non-existent).

But even in the absence of social pressure or religious motivations… would you promise something to a person prior to their death, and then later on, out of self-interest, break that promise?

Keeping the memory alive (if not the plants)… (via Twitter)

Our remarkably deep sense of duty here illustrates the power of inherent motivation. In the absence of any external force, we still choose to do something that is materially to our detriment. It’s not even altruistic: nobody benefits from our sacrifice.

And sometimes, keeping a promise to a loved one leads to an unexpected consequence much later on, as the family of Phedre Fitton discovered years after she died. In the final days before she passed away, she had asked her husband Nigel to make sure he continued to water the plants in the bathroom. When, three years later, Phedre and Nigel’s daughter Antonia helped her dad move to a retirement home, they found the plants were in fact plastic ones — a prank from beyond the grave, which gave the memory of a beloved wife and mother new vigour.

Maybe that is what motivates us to make sacrifices in order to honour the wishes of the deceased: the most valuable thing to us is the memory, deep inside, of a loved one who has passed on. That is truly priceless.

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on April 6, 2018.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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