By Alexandra Porto
From gleaming golden iPhones and 18k jewelry to twinkling stars in the sky and shimmering glitter, people are drawn to shiny objects. Sure, they often serve as a status symbol for luxury and wealth, but as we learned in our past edition’s “Virtue of Gold” article, sometimes there is deeper significance than initially apparent.
There’s something about gold’s appeal that feels natural, as though there is an innate attraction to shininess that transcends societal and cultural expectations. Even my 10-month-old niece can’t pull her eyes away from the reflection of a mirror or a sparkly toy. Have you ever wondered why this is? Is it merely the beauty of that magnificent glimmer or is there more than meets the eye?
Our Lust for Sparkle Dates Back to Prehistoric Times
According to Vice, our obsession with “all that sparkles” dates back as early as 40,000 BCE during the Upper Paleolithic era. Back then, early humans known as Cro-Magnons carved flint tools out of polished, colorful stones creating a sheen so incredible it was still visible when dug up by archeologists many centuries later. These prehistoric humans also used mica and pyrite to accent cave paintings with that desired shimmer.
Later Mayans evolved this practice, adorning their temples with mica-powdered pigments. They perfected gold artisanry using embossing and engraving techniques to embellish golden crowns, breastplates, and other ornaments.
PREHISTORIC AND ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS CRAVED GOLD AND SHINY ADORNMENTS (PHOTO: BRUNO SANCHEZ-ANDRADE NUÑO / CC BY CREATIVECOMMONS.ORG/LICENSES/BY/2.0)»
Ancient Egyptians also loved their sparkle and favored lavish golden jewelry and sarcophaguses laden with riches such as gold and precious gems. According to Lush Cosmetics, Cleopatra was even known to crush up scarab beetles and mix them with green malachite crystals and gold leaf to create her signature eyeshadow pigment.
History tells us that humans have been enamored with shiny objects since the beginning of mankind. Discovery News further explains that “from a very early age, we as humans are intrinsically attracted to shiny things,” which makes sense given that even infants are fascinated with gold’s allure. But this still does not answer the question of why we have this innate desire.
Scientists Study Why We are Drawn to Shiny Objects
Researchers from the University of Houston and the Ghent University in Belgium sought to address this very question of why we desire lustrous materials like gold. In the Journal of Consumer Psychology, they explained that “people are attracted to shiny objects. However, investigations carried out in order to analyze what makes people prefer such items, or if it is a systematic bias, have received very little attention.”
In seeking to explore this further, they embarked on creating a series of six experiments to illuminate the origins behind our love of sparkly things. The first study involved 4-year-old test subjects since they are “not yet socialized to the idea” of shiny things being aesthetically pleasing, as Discovery News explains.
The researchers asked the children and adults to individually rank their preference of images printed on both glossy and matte paper. Overwhelming, both groups preferred the glossy paper and said it was of higher quality. Through these results, scientists were able to demonstrate that this desire for shiny objects is a natural response not influenced by societal expectations.
Caption: Researchers Uncover a Link Between Water and Shiny Objects
In a similar test, scientists blindfolded participants and presented them with glossy or matte paper they could not see. When asked what photographs they imagined were printed on the pieces of paper, many who received glossy paper envisioned landscapes with water.
In a subsequent experiment, participants incorrectly identified aquatic photographs as being printed on a glossier paper than desert photographs. In reality, both photographs were printed on the same paper.
DO WE LIKE SHINY OBJECTS LIKE GOLD BECAUSE OF A PRIMITIVE DESIRE FOR WATER? (PHOTO: PHOTO BY YOANN BOYER ON UNSPLASH)
Lastly, the scientists investigated whether “the feeling of thirst, and craving water, could also elicit a reaction to glossy materials. They fed participants salty crackers and had them evaluate their preference for either matte or glossy paper,” explained Discovery News.
The thirstier participants, who were given only crackers and no water, found the images printed on the glossy paper much more attractive. Based on the tests’ results, the scientists concluded that our instinctual desire for shiny objects is biologically linked to water as a vital resource needed to survive. This innate response is thought to have even helped our prehistoric human ancestors find water sources more easily.
“First and foremost, our work has shown that preference for shiny objects may have deep roots in every human. Despite the sophistication progress we have made as a species, we are still attracted to things that serve our innate needs such as water,” said Vanessa M. Patrick of the University of Houston.
Other research backs this up as well. An earlier study of infants and toddlers in Ecological Psychology observed children licking “the horizontal metal mirrors of toys on their hands and knees in a manner not unlike the way older children drink from rain pools in developing countries,” and led scientists to a similar conclusion.
Our Reasons Might Be Constantly Evolving
History and research have proven that humans have a longstanding biological attraction to shiny objects such as gold, which is likely rooted in our primitive desire for water. But this doesn’t mean it is the only reason why we fall for the allure of gold. As the scientists said, more research is needed on this topic.
Our prehistoric ancestors likely never imagined how gold would become the benchmark for luxury today. Just as our appetite for shiny objects expands, so too are new meanings ascribed to gold. For many it is associated with wealth and success; for others, it’s a material with great spiritual symbolism. For gold prospectors, the meaning is more about the story behind its discovery than the gold itself. Whatever your reasons for loving gold, they’re valid — even if they can’t be scientifically proven.