Anthropologists and psychologists called it the "magical law of contagion", or the belief that a person's essence can be transmitted through objects he or she has touched.
In the 1920s, anthropologist James Frazer suggested the belief was common to "savage and barbarous society". But, in a study published on Monday in the journal PNAS, Yale University researchers argue that such magical thinking is alive and well in the United States.
To prove their hypothesis, study authors analysed several high-profile celebrity auctions: the estates of president John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Onassis; actress Marilyn Monroe; and convicted swindler Bernard Madoff and his wife Ruth Madoff.
Study authors George Newman and Paul Bloom found that items viewed as having come into close contact with well-liked famous people sold for more than low-contact items.
But they also reported a "marginal negative effect" on close-contact items that once belonged to Madoff, and no apparent effect on items from his wife.
The researchers also surveyed 435 adults, asking how much they would pay for a sweater owned by a famous person they admired, and one owned by a person they despised. They also asked if the price would change if the sweater were sanitised.
The researchers found that when it came to well-liked celebrities, sanitising the sweater resulted in a 14 per cent drop in the willingness to pay top dollar. However, sanitising a sweater that belonged to a despised celebrity increased willingness to pay more by 17 per cent.
"Consistent with the contagion hypothesis, physical contact appears to have real-world effect on how much people pay for celebrity objects," the authors wrote.
"Moreover, the present findings suggest that desires for positive celebrity memorabilia really do reflect a belief in contagion."
They speculate that contagion thinking may have roots in evolution and may have aided survival by tracking disease contaminants.
They point out too that contagion thinking elicits a very strong reaction when it comes to food. "A single cockroach can ruin a large pot of soup," the authors wrote.