Brad and Ange, Tom and Katie, Lindsay Lohan, Brittany Spears…. We follow the lives of celebrities with an enthusiasm that boarders on the fanatical. But what are we really doing when we buy the latest edition of People or tune in to E!TV? We don’t know these people. In most cases we’ve never even met them. And they sure don’t know we exist. So why do we give them so much of our precious time?
Well, apparently humans are hardwired to worship and gossip about celebrities. We’ve done it throughout history – the ancient world lauded great warriors, women threw their underwear at the 18th Century composers Liszt and Chopin…
And the reason we do it, according to social psychologists, is that, back during our evolutionary development, learning as much as we could about the members of our immediate social network (or group) increased our chances of survival.
Knowing who might betray you, who could be counted on to provide help or who was available as a mate gave you an edge over your contemporaries at a time when people lived within smaller and more immediately connected social networks. But what about now when survival isn’t, for most of us, such a dicey proposition?
That’s where our evolutionary heritage comes in. We still do it, only now our group isn’t just our immediate social network, it also includes pseudo group members, those famous people we see every day whenever we open a magazine, switch on the TV or browse the internet – celebrities!
At least that’s one take on the current mania for celebrity gossip. And, certainly, it seems logical that observing the behaviour of these high-status individuals might have benefits – perhaps we can learn enough to rise to their level! But there are other suggested reasons for our interest in celebrities too.
Within the group of people we do actually know and interact with, as opposed to those we only observe, celebrity gossip plays an important role. It gives us a common interest, something to talk about, and by doing so facilitates the development of trusting relationships and social bonding – another necessity for survival, even in today’s society.
Drivers & Desires
Our own desires play a role too. Celebrities symbolise our hidden wishes for wealth, fame, immortality, invincibility, validation, beauty… In effect, our observation of their lives reinforces notions of transformation and possibility, the idea that one day our lives really might change for the better. If it happened for them, why not us?
And then there are the darker drivers of celebrity worship, among them:
• social fragmentation
• loss of religion
• lack of identity
In an increasingly fragmented society, where people suffer greater levels of isolation from common beliefs and goals, celebrity worship fills a void. It provides an escape from the mundanities of daily life and, for some individuals, replaces traditional value systems with its vision of an earthly paradise and promise of transformative wealth and status.
How Much is Too Much?
So, there are a number of justifications for our current interest in the lives of celebrities. But just how much celebrity worship should we engage in? Research indicates that, with its benefits of bonding, entertainment and stress reduction, people who engage in low levels of celebrity worship are actually happier and more outgoing. At higher levels, though, celebrity worship has been linked to depression, anxiety, stress and body image problems.
Did you know there is even a condition known as Celebrity Worship Syndrome? Measured by a 34 item questionnaire called the Celebrity Attitude Scale, the syndrome has been shown to have three broad levels of intensity:
Entertainment – social
At this level fans simply like to learn and talk about their favourite celebrities.
Intense – personal
Fans suffer compulsive feelings. They might, for instance, believe they share a special bond with the celebrity.
Borderline – pathological
This level is characterised by intense fantasies and intrusive thoughts around issues regarding the celebrity. The fan may feel that the celebrity actually cares personally about them.
Generally, the more prone an individual is to fantasy and the less connected he is to his social network, the higher up the Celebrity Attitude Scale he will place.
It’s All About Balance
Celebrities provide us with a great deal of entertainment and enjoyment, both on and (increasingly) off screen. We might be able to take pointers from their success stories, and we can certainly learn from their well-publicised mistakes. There is even an evolutionary basis to our interest. But, beyond certain limits, celebrity worship can be dangerous, leading to unhappiness and undesirable behaviours.
The lesson seems to be, then, that we should enjoy the antics of Brad and Jen, or Brad and Ange (depending on the day of the week), perhaps even admire the status they’ve achieved in life, but never, even for one minute, should we let ourselves believe that they care about us as individuals.
And on a lighter note…