A question about why fans worship idols comes up basically every time a major scandal happens, so I figured it would be an appropriate topic for Ask Asian Junkie.
Can you provide your synopsis on why people tend to worship celebrities (flaws and all)?
The short version? People are fucking delusional. Add in the fact that they’re generally emotionally and physically immature teenagers and everything just gets exacerbated.
The long version? I’m not qualified to explain, but it’s quite logical.
1) We live vicariously through other people.
Also, when our own lives start to go down hill, we gain some value (and perhaps a little boost to our mood and self-esteem) when we can read about the most famous and popular people in our culture who suffer from not dissimilar woes from our own. They breakup, they makeup, they wear bad clothes, they have hangovers, just like us.
And maybe that’s the real key… That we’re seeking a sign of humanity that we can relate to and that feels familiar to us, despite how far away, unreal, and unattainable such lives really are.
This suggests that people with the most extreme celebrity worship engage in an attributional style that believes the cause of most events in the person’s life are external, that is, they are outside the control of the person experiencing the event. People who have stable, global attributions share such an attribution style with people who are depressed. So people who have the most extreme celebrity worship look to the outside world for explanations, and believe celebrities might hold a piece of that cure.
2) We are scared of dying.
Another interesting possibility derives from terror management theory. As I have written in past blogs, this theory starts with the assumption that people generally want to live for as long as possible. But they know they will die, and this is potentially very disturbing. So humans do the best they can; they ignore death and they overestimate their health and underestimate their risk for diseases etc. They also invest in meaning systems that will prevail after they die.
So yeah, death is a bummer and maybe even scares the living daylights out of a lot of us, but it sucks less if we will live on in some way post death, either symbolically through loves ones and our cultural beliefs, or through our spiritual beliefs.
3) We want to feel important.
So in other words, we love celebrities because they are an integral part of culture. They have made it in the worldview we are so entrenched in. By worshipping them (to an extent), we feel as if we are participating in this hugely important cause/belief system. And that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, and like our life matters (and in turn, death doesn’t sting as much).
Doctoral student Spee Kosloff and his advisor, professor Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona, recently tested the effects of death salience on celebrity worship. In several studies, people were more positive towards celebrities and fame when they were first reminded of death. This suggests that people cope with the awareness they will die by loving themselves some fame and celebrity.
I’m not going to pretend I’m above the fray though, I mean this whole site is about celebrities after all. Quite frankly, I don’t think anybody is above the fray, because even if you don’t watch episodes of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” while drooling in your double wide, you’ve probably idolized somebody famous at some point in your life.
Psychologically speaking though, it’s not harmful when done with limits…
John M. Grohol of PsychCentral and Jennifer Gibson of BrainBlogger have both published analysis of some of the research on celebrity worship. The phenomenon impacts more people than you might suspect. From those who scan gossip magazine headlines in the grocery store check-out line to those who immerse themselves in nearly every detail of a particular celebrity’s life, there are likely very few people who do not participate in celebrity gossip either actively or passively.
“Much research has been conducted about who engages in celebrity worship and what drives the compulsion. Celebrity worship for purely entertainment purposes likely reflects an extraverted personality and is most likely a healthy past time for most people. This type of celebrity worship involves harmless behaviors such as reading and learning about a celebrity.”
Intense personal attitudes towards celebrities, however, reflect traits of neuroticism. The most extreme descriptions of celebrity worship exhibit borderline pathological behavior and traits of psychoticism. This type of celebrity worship may involve empathy with a celebrity’s failures and successes, obsessions with the details of a celebrity’s life, and over-identification with the celebrity.”
What impact does this type of celebrity worship have on mental health? Grohol cites a study by North and others (2007), which succinctly summarizes some of the previous research in this area. Some of these findings suggest that intense personal celebrity worship is associated with:
Low life satisfaction
Another correlated pathology was recently reported by Maltby, Giles, Barber and McCutcheon (2005) who examined the role of celebrity interest in shaping body image cognitions. Among three separate UK samples (adolescents, students and older adults) individuals selected a celebrity of their own sex whose body/figure they liked and admired, and then completed the Celebrity Attitude Scale along with two measures of body image. Significant relationships were found between attitudes toward celebrities and body image among female adolescents only.
Within a clinical context the effect of celebrity might be more extreme, particularly when considering extreme aspects of celebrity worship. Maltby, Day, McCutcheon, Houran and Ashe (2006) examined the relationship between entertainment-social, intense-personal and borderline-pathological celebrity worship and obsessiveness, ego-identity, fantasy proneness and dissociation. Two of these variables drew particular attention; fantasy proneness (time spent fantasising, reporting hallucinatory intensities as real, reporting vivid childhood memories, having intense religious and paranormal experiences) and dissociation (reflects the lack of a normal integration of experiences, feelings, and thoughts in everyday consciousness and memory and is related to a number of psychiatric problems).
Though low levels of celebrity worship (entertainment-social) are not associated with any of the clinical measures, medium levels of celebrity worship (intense-personal) are related to fantasy proneness (around 10% of the shared variance), while high levels of celebrity worship (borderline-pathological) share a greater association with fantasy proneness (around 14% of the shared variance) and dissociation (around 3% of the shared variance, though the effect size of this is small and most probably due to the large sample size). This finding suggests that as celebrity worship becomes more intense, and the individual perceives having a relationship with the celebrity, the more the individual is prone to fantasies.
Whatever you want to blame the phenomenon on is up to you, but idol culture undoubtedly takes firm advantage of the attachment that develops between idol and fan and abuses it. That’s why I have minimal sympathy for idols who complain about fans, because their company and their career paths are designed to generate and attract the imbalanced and vulnerable.
Reap what you sow, really.
Overall, as a hobby, I see nothing wrong with being interested in celebrity culture or pop culture. It actually makes complete sense considering it’s a reflection of ourselves in a way. Like everything else in world though, moderation and a grip on reality are important. When those two things tag along on any activity, it generally won’t end badly.
I have nothing better to do, so send me your questions here: Ask Asian Junkie.