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Jeremy D. Holden

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Why We're So Forgiving Of Celebrities

Posted: 10/30/2012 12:55 pm

The ongoing narrative around the highs and lows of Lance Armstrong's interconnected personal persona and sporting career continues to remain in the forefront of the media, as this recent New York Times article about the reaction to him entering the world of triathlon illustrates.

After refusing to appear or publicly defend himself against enduring and compelling allegations that his seven Tour de France victories had been powered by illegal doping, Armstrong was ultimately stripped of them. And yet generally speaking, people have continued to support him. Armstrong is a global celebrity and many in the media clearly find this unwavering public loyalty perplexing and even irritating.

As I discuss in my new book Second That Emotion [Prometheus Books, $25.00], trends and movements as well as public personas are based on a "social contract", which occurs when a large group of people in an emotional state, establish a set of largely illogical beliefs, which they know rationally to be false. Understanding the nature of Lance Armstrong's social contract goes a long way to explaining the apparent contradiction in people's enduring support for him. I would suggest Armstrong's social contract for many average American's reads something like this:

"You are a hero, an inspiration and an extraordinary athlete. I don't know much about long distance cycling other than that it's a tough sport dominated by foreigners. You overcame cancer, then with incredible guts and determination you rose to dominate this most arduous of sports for a decade, winning the Tour de France more times than anyone in history.
You leveraged your fame to build the "Livestrong" charitable movement, raising millions for cancer research, and you became an inspiration for cancer sufferers everywhere. Maybe the U.S. doping agency does have a case, although they seem to have had it out for you. Even if you did take illegal substances, so was everyone in that sport, and after what you'd been through all it did was create a level playing field with other cyclists that hadn't had to go through the appalling rigors of chemotherapy. To me you're still a hero and I'll support you in whatever you do moving forward."

When we form a social contract with a celebrity we are tricked by our sub-conscious into believing that we know that person intimately, whereas in fact our impression is being formed by remote snippets of information we've processed. We complete our celebrity portrait by taking what I term "illogical leaps" to create an overall opinion that comes to seem entirely true to us. As a result we refuse to be swayed from it whatever inconvenient facts arise to contradict it.

Think about people's ongoing fascination with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and the enduring belief that Angelina somehow stole Brad away from Jennifer Aniston, and that someday they will inevitably reunite. Regardless of the fact that against incredible odds, Pitt and Jolie appear to have a very successful relationship under the public glare, the tabloids continue to print covers that feed our ingrained belief that Brad and Jen's reunion is imminent. Once these illogical opinions become fixed in our sub-conscious it's near impossible to shift them.

Lance Armstrong's personal story is a tale of overcoming incredible adversity and suffering to rise to the top of his sport. He also appears to have done so with the use of illegal substances. We'll never know if he could have succeeded without this stimulus, but if he broke the rules he should clearly be stripped of his titles. Is he a man nonetheless worthy of our admiration, absolutely, based on his extraordinary fundraising efforts on behalf of those suffering the heaviest of burdens that cancer imposes.

Seen through the lens of Armstrong's social contract perhaps it isn't that surprising that people continue to support and admire him, and that only a minority of hard-core triathletes, concerned about his ability to tarnish their sport, are objecting to his involvement.

Whether it's an athlete, a celebrity, a politician or a business leader, what matters are the terms of the social contract that people have established with you, and understanding the illogic that lies at their heart is the best way to ensure you don't break them. And it appears that for many, Lance Armstrong hasn't broken his.

 
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