12 July 2006

Divine trash: the psychology of celebrity obsession

You may dismiss celebrity gossip as harmless fun, but it could be that evolution is forcing you to consume those trashy magazines.
Divine trash: the psychology of celebrity obsession

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston in happier times: their lives are an obsession for millions, and evolution may be to blame. Credit: Boris Horvat/AFP

In the checkout queue at supermarket recently, I was busy pigeonholing people based on the contents of their shopping trolleys. Then Jennifer caught my eye.

The truth is, I’d been looking forward to seeing Jen all week. And since the tinned-fish-and-legumes aisle, I hadn’t been able to get her out of my mind. How was she feeling about Brad and Angelina? And how was she wearing her hair?

Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have been the highlight of my weekly shop for some time now. Every Tuesday, I feign irritation at the length of the checkout queue, sighing and rolling my eyes as I reach for the magazine stand, pretending it’s a desperate last resort in the battle against boredom. But secretly, I take delight in that temperamental barcode scanner up ahead and the intermittent but predictable delays caused by price-checking. Because it means I’m able to spend more time with Jen.

Far from being a trivial pastime, interest in Jen has become one of the hottest new topics of scholarly debate. In September 2005, more than 100 academics descended on the town of Ayr in Scotland to exchange ideas about the cult of celebrity, from fan conventions to assassinated stars. Hosted by the school of media, language and music at the University of Paisley, the conference dragged the likes of David Beckham, Michael Jackson and Kate Moss out of the gossip mags and into the journals.

In fact, over the past few years, a wealth of academic literature has cashed in on our relationships with the stars. And – depending on what you read -my absorption with Jen could define me as a victim of a poorly understood epidemic that’s ravaging the Western world … or it could be one of the savviest aspects of my personality (from a Darwinian point of view); the start of a downward spiral into depression, anxiety and addiction … or the quiet workings of some very robust genes.

IN 2003, NEW SCIENTIST magazine reported that one-third of Americans were suffering from something it called “celebrity-worship syndrome”, which it abbreviated as “CWS”. And the journalists said the proportion of the population affected by CWS seemed to be continuing to rise.

Scientists everywhere were shocked when news of the epidemic broke – not least the researchers studying a scientific survey called the Celebrity Worship Scale, which up to that point had been the recognised meaning of the CWS acronym among academics. James Houran, clinical psychologist and joint creator of the Celebrity Worship Scale, explains: “A reporter saw the acronym and decided it should stand for celebrity-worship syndrome. So a new psychological disorder was invented, and credited to me and my team”.

In fact, Houran reckons low levels of celebrity worship are good for you. “It’s a form of social bonding, stress reduction, escapism and entertainment. At low levels, people tend to be happier, more personable and more outgoing.” While he shies from the idea of a “syndrome”, Houran concedes that at higher levels, celebrity worship has been linked with depression, anxiety, body-image problems and addiction.

After the accidental invention of the syndrome, Houran and his team changed the name of their survey to the “Celebrity Attitude Scale” (CAS) to avoid confusion. Houran describes the CAS as a thermometer of sorts, which can measure a person’s degree of interest in a celebrity. Volunteers agree or disagree with a series of 34 statements ranging from, “I love to talk with others who admire my favourite celebrity” to “I consider my favourite celebrity to be my soul mate”.

Before the CAS, fans used to be lumped into two distinct groups. The first were harmless admirers who enjoyed their celebrity’s talents from afar: people who marvelled at Jen’s comedic timing (and her hair), those in awe of David Beckham’s ball skills (and his hair), and others who harnessed a deep desire for Paris Hilton’s … um, well … hair. The second group of fans were the obsessive letter writers and the stalkers – including John Lennon’s killer, Mark Chapman – people who were literally “fanatics”. But the CAS broke down that dichotomy, describing celebrity worship as a continuum, a sliding scale that saw us pushed along by external forces. As Houran confrontingly puts it, “There’s a stalker in all of us, given the right set of circumstances”.

So what is the ‘right’ set of circumstances? What could possibly slide me along the scale from checkout-queue-gossip-mag reader to house-breaking-bunny-boiling fanatic? While certain personality traits keep our celebrity worship in check (happy extroverts generally stay at the lower end of the scale, while anxious narcissists tend to slide on up), external circumstances can give us a shove in the unhealthy direction. According to Houran, going through a traumatic experience that challenges our identity, for example, being fired, going through a divorce or grieving over losing a loved one, we can go sliding up the scale.

But why are we drawn to celebrities in the first place? It certainly seems that most people in the Western world are on first-name terms with Jen, not to mention Kylie, Russel, Nicole, Britney and (sorry Jen) Brangelina. On-screen, they play out our collective dreams about love, hate, good and evil. Off-screen they do it even better. But why the fascination? Why do we care about the personal lives of people we’ve never met?

Social psychologists agree that the reasons are complex, but some issues seem to recur. One is that we’re bored, and living through movie stars is a way of alleviating that boredom. Another is that we’re searching for identity, the evidence for which is that teenagers (those lost souls of adolescence) usually score highest on the CAS. Social fragmentation might also play a part: as family and community values are crushed by the cult of individualism and an omnipresent media, perhaps fantasy relationships are becoming easier to form than real ones.

John Maltby, a lecturer in psychology at Britain’s University of Leicester, has found that people who spend more time fantasising generally score highly on the CAS. Lynn McCutcheon, associate professor of psychology at DeVry University in Illinois and one of Maltby’s collaborators, relates the story of an actor who for several years played the role of a physician in a U.S. television series. “People would stop him on the street and ask for medical advice, as if they couldn’t separate the role from the person.”

PERHAPS FAME is the new religion, and celebrities our gods. When John Lennon said The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, perhaps he was onto something. After all, throughout history and across cultures, people have always worshipped idols. With all its myth, ritual and power to immortalise, celebrity could well be filling a similar cultural niche.

Psychological research lends some weight to this theory: Maltby and his colleagues have found that the more a person subscribes to a formal, institutionalised religion, the less likely they are to worship a celebrity. Chris Rojek, professor of sociology and culture at Britain’s Nottingham Trent University and author of Celebrity describes the religious overtones as “pretty obvious”.

He points out that when The Beatles were at the height of their popularity in Britain, the front rows of their concerts were reserved for the handicapped. “The idea was that after the show, The Beatles would come down and touch these people and heal them.”

Houran goes so far as to suggest that, “maybe there’s a worshipping trait in all of us … as human beings, we’re hard-wired to worship something”.

It may all go back to the savannahs of Africa, some time in the Pleistocene (between 500,000 and 1.8 million years ago). According to evolutionary biologists, far from being a nasty epidemic, aspects of celebrity-worship behaviour may be among the smartest things we as a species can do.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, there was a much stronger evolutionary advantage to knowing who was an ‘enemy’ and who was a ‘friend’. Back then, an enemy was less inclined to, say, let the air out of your tyres than, for example, run you through with a spear. So gossip in those days was a matter of life and death – it was a means of reinforcing social bonds while keeping track of who could be trusted. Anyone with a familiar face had to live nearby – so they were the ones worth keeping tabs on.

As cave painting has given way to more pervasive media, including print, television, film and the Internet, faces have been delivered, transmitted and downloaded to our living rooms from all around the globe. Familiarity is no longer a sure sign of proximity, but our neural hard-wiring has been slow to catch up. So, on some innate level we might feel as if the Neighbours we watch on television, are actually our own.

“For millions of years humans sat around the campfire and talked about people they knew in common,” according to Helen Fisher, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of Why We Love. She describes the modern media as “the global campfire”, and isn’t at all surprised by our tendency to gossip about the celebrities. “These days, we don’t know a thing about our neighbours … celebrities are the people we know in common. So we’re doing the same thing – we’re continuing to talk to each other about people we know.”

Mark Schaller, lecturer in psychology at Canada’s University of British Columbia, takes things one step further. He thinks we feel as if celebrities belong to our family. Our ancestors used two main cues – similarity and familiarity – to determine kinship. And famous people are obviously very familiar. “I’ve seen Bruce Willis around for years. I’ve seen him in his underwear, in bed with his wife … I’ve seen him in my own house dozens of times.” While Schaller admits that rationally, he knows Bruce isn’t family, he describes the neural processes operating as “the highly-automatised, non-conscious residue of our ancient evolutionary past”.

While not so crucial for survival now, social psychologists agree that gossip – whether about family, friends, neighbours or celebrities – still plays an important role in cementing social bonds and improving an individual’s status within a group. Fisher also points out the importance of gossip as a forum “for expressing our ideals, interests, hopes, dreams and moral systems”. Which all sounds good and healthy.

But celebrity worship, as we’ve seen, isn’t just about gossip. In 2004, People magazine profiled fans who’d gone to extraordinary lengths to emulate their idols. From J-Lo inspired ‘gluteal augmentation’ and John Travolta chin-dimpling to demands for Britney-like boobs, it seems that undergoing surgery in a quest to resemble a favourite celebrity is far from uncommon. The trend has even spawned a gruesome reality-television show, MTV’s I Want a Famous Face, which follows contestants through their surgical mimicry. While most people don’t take their interest quite so far, imitating the hair, clothing, and habits of celebrities is pretty standard fare.

From an evolutionary viewpoint, it makes sense for us to copy high-status individuals, according to Francisco Gil-White, lecturer in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Among our ancestors, people with high status tended to reproduce more, so copying their techniques was a way of improving our own fitness. In fact, Gil-White reckons imitation is one of the smartest and most remarkable things Homo sapiens do. While other animals learn functional associations – a chimp can learn that reeds are associated with extracting termites from a mound – we are the only species capable of imitating specific motor patterns, and so acquiring technique.

Which leads us to Gil-White’s theory of “kisser-upperers”. According to this theory, ingratiating yourself with highly skilled individuals is advantageous because it gives us access to their superior techniques. As a result, we’ve learned to flatter high-status folk just so they’ll tolerate our proximity.

It makes sense then, that one method of locating successful people is to key into the “posse of kisser-upperers” around them. When someone appears in a magazine or on TV, and there’s an implicit posse of millions of kisser-upperers, “this person is a huge deal. A ‘deal’ like nobody’s ever seen before in the history of time.” And so we turn to the rich, beautiful alpha-folk of Hollywood for our cues.

BUT PERHAPS we’re flirting with the real issue here. If celebrity is just a glammed-up version of survival of the fittest, then surely we should be talking more about sex. Sex is at the root of celebrity worship, according to Douglas Kenrick of Arizona State University. He thinks that in some ways we’re duped into believing the stars are part of our own reproductive pool. “It’s natural for us to keep track of the mating relationships of ‘Brangelina’. Because if someone of high-status becomes available, it’s time to take action – or keep very close tabs on your partner.”

Fisher agrees that celebrities can trigger any of the three brain systems involved in mating and reproduction: the first controls our sex drive, the second controls romantic love (associated with elation, mood swings, obsessive thoughts), and the third is responsible for attachment, that sense of calm and security we feel with a long-term partner. She also points out that the system linked with romantic love – increased dopamine activity in certain regions of the brain – is also responsible for addictions, and that people rejected in love show brain activity similar to people craving cocaine. So physiological evidence lends support to Houran’s idea that at higher levels, celebrity worship becomes addictive.

But is there really an epidemic? Social psychologists agree that we’ve always worshipped celebrities – throughout human history we’ve always idolised people more successful and beautiful than ourselves. But Houran suspects that celebrity worship is becoming more prevalent and more intense, and he cites the technology boom of the past few decades – especially the arrival of the Internet – as the main reason for this trend. With its rapid transmission of images, sound bites and vast volumes of information, the Internet has brought the world and its celebrities closer, faster … and continuously. Even if we wanted to stop consuming the celebrity product, Houran reckons “It’s like someone trying to stop overeating in the middle of a candy store.”

So in this fast-food age of celebrity, our television, film and music industries have become star factories, pumping out batches of celebrities with short shelf-lives. This happens most explicitly in the form of reality television. Each season, Big Brother, Australian Idol and Survivor take a batch of relative unknowns and transform them into overnight stars, often for doing very little other than being watched. Graeme Turner, professor of cultural studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane and author of Understanding Celebrity, says that reality TV provides a new kind of revenue stream for the industry, because instead of having to pay for established stars and their agents, producers can develop their own stars from scratch. “The only thing that’s weak about the business plan is that you can’t run repeats.” Which is why there’ll be a new crop of disposable stars every season.

While many think reality television and the throwaway celebrity have stripped the magic out of stardom, Rojek takes a very different line. He sees the rise of reality TV as a victory for democracy. “The people we regard as role models are emerging from our own ranks. We have become celebrities to ourselves – our passions, our desires, our flaws.” He thinks Western society’s tendency to subject the stars to intense scrutiny is a healthy part of the democratic process. “The idea that celebrities have feet of clay has got to be better than, say, fascist Germany, when Hitler was seen as a god and you couldn’t criticise him without being killed.”

Humans do like to gossip, and while some idolise, most are quite happy to dish out dirt on celebrities and spread it. In fact, Turner thinks the word ‘worship’ misrepresents our relationship with celebrities. He thinks that having someone to look down on makes us feel better about ourselves, so one of the functions of gossip magazines and celebrity-packed tabloids is to create objects of contempt for the working class. And the media are a fickle lot according to Turner, who likens media commentary on celebrities to the football match calls by Australian comedians ‘Rampaging’ Roy Slaven and H.G. Nelson (played by John Doyle and Greg Pickhaver). “One minute the guy’s a genius, and the next minute … he’s a joke!”

We need look no further than the imperiled Kate Moss, caught on film snorting cocaine: she went from adored supermodel working for Chanel and Rimmel (among others) to contractless trash-bag within days.

But whatever your moral stance on the media and celebrities, there’s no denying that in commercially driven, celebrity saturated Western societies, we’re devouring them as if they were consumables – soaking up every last drop of information we can get. But perhaps it’s not an epidemic. Perhaps it’s only natural. After all, who can argue with hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and very good hair?

So the next time you reach for the gossip mags and catch a fellow shopper’s disapproving eye, perhaps you can smile, murmur “It’s Darwinian, darling”, and enjoy some quality time with Jen.

Erica Harrison is a Sydney science writer and a regular contributor COSMOS.

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