THE BLOG

Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears: Why Do We Care So Much?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

An area of interest for me is what causes us to make the choices we do and behave the way we do. There is a saying in sales that people make emotional decisions all the time when they buy and it is unconscious. We are often unaware of why we are doing what we do.

There has been an almost unprecedented public interest in the unfolding Tiger Woods story, and that which is behind the a lot of public reaction isn't not making headlines. I define a difference between identifying and condemning (aka judgement). In my theories I look to identify and present behaviors for you to think about and share your ideas.

The media is filled with details and stories about Tiger Woods, and sprinkled with the folks saying, 'What's the big deal?' It is a good question. Why is it such a big deal? Outside of his wife and sponsors, why do so many other people who have never met Tiger Woods have a strong emotional reaction to this new information. I have a theory.

Part one: There is a part of us that is undefended in childhood. As children we are undefended and vulnerable and attach to ideas and people more easily. We were all vulnerable as children and we are reminded of that vulnerability when we see children.

What are we not seeing in the news as far as what is behind or driving the public's focus and emotional response to Tiger Woods right now? Here is one real example. A 58-year-old retired man, "Bob", who worked as a driver for 30 years in Los Angeles, never married and still works on his golf swing. His family has played the gentleman's sport of golf for decades and it is part of the tradition begun by his dad, who can't play anymore due to Alzheimer's. Bob has believed in Tiger Woods since he saw him play in 1978 at two-years-old on television on the Michael Douglas Show. (If you watch this 36 second video of a young Tiger, you will see that innocence and vulnerability.) He followed Tiger's life almost like he'd follow a nephew's life. To Bob, Tiger Woods was a tribute to what hard work and and focus could create. He cheered for Tiger each time Tiger won and feeling the loss each time Tiger lost. He felt proud of the upstanding young man he appeared to have grown into. As strange as it might sound, this man felt proud of Tiger and all he had accomplished. Tiger was solid and appreciating the opportunity he had to live the dream.

My theory is that while we develop strong bonds as children, as adults, children still remind us of our own past vulnerability and we can emotionally bond to children without feeling we need to protect ourselves from them. (This is why horror movies with evil children are particularly disturbing) Our hearts are undefended to children because we don't generally need to protect ourselves from them. When little baby Jessica fell into the well, many were riveted to the television. A child in danger, helpless - people felt connected to that child's dilemma as well to their own personal knowledge of the vulnerability and defenselessness of a child.

Millions of people, like "Bob" have followed Tiger Woods since he was two, watched him grow and develop into a teenager then a young man. They feel a part of a champion who almost defied reality...until now. Michael Jordan, John F, Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon are all very popular figures who have had fidelity issues or died young, yet the emotion and pubic reaction did not reach the level it did when Michael Jackson died or with the current Tiger Woods scandal.

What did Tiger Woods and Michael Jackson have in common that might possibly explain the enormous public interest and strong reaction? This is my theory. "We" the public feel that we have "known" them both since they were children. Many of us grew up being entertained by Michael Jackson. We had a child bonding with another children over airwaves and that childhood innocence goes so deep. We trust without questioning and take delight without self-consciousness.

When Michael Jackson died, my sister, in her late thirties, texted me immediately to tell me he had died. She and I had spent hundreds of hours singing along to his songs, dancing to his music during cold Maine winters and excitedly saving our allowance for his next record. He was part of our childhood and now he was gone. I thought he was a great artist and performer, with Thriller being one of my favorite videos. But, if not for the childhood connection, how else could I explain that when he died, I found myself watching his videos for hours , tears falling down my face, feeling like a part of my childhood had died with him? Almost as if someone I had known in childhood had been carrying a burden I had not known about until it was too late. Of course, the plastic surgeries had changed his appearance but in my head, he always was the gentle kid in the Jackson Five.

I did not follow Tiger Woods and do not follow golf, however, know many people who have watched Tiger since he was young. They feel crushed. They feel disappointed and sad and at the same time are acknowledging that Tiger Woods has turned out to be a mere mortal like the rest of us, except on the golf course, where they still think he is the best that has ever been and will ever be.

How is it that adults could care so much and feel so much just from watching someone play golf? Once again, my theory is the childhood theory. They bonded with him because he was a child, their child inside. They identified with his child. They saw an amazing skill, a dream come true, a stable financial empire, a gentle, caring husband and father with a beautiful young wife who was also a mother. They saw the ultimate fairytale and possibly it gave them hope that magic is real and a man can be successful and be a truly great man.

Now, they feel betrayed, almost lied to, in that much of who they believed Tiger was was merely an illusion to keep the endorsements and build the empire. The child they trusted had sometime along they way begin to deceive them and the slight of hand was never noticed. The story of one of the tabloid catching Tiger two years ago with a woman in the back seat of his car and trading squashing that story for Tiger being on the front page of another of their magazine lets the public know that many people knew about the deception for years but did nothing for the sake of profits and leverage. It was perceived that the illusion of perfection was needed to produce the financial returns. Trust is fragile. Right now, millions of people who followed Tiger's career for decades and felt proud of who Tiger was are disappointed -- also feeling some empathy for the suffering everyone involved is experiencing. There is also some anger that Tiger appeared to have so much of the tangible American dream (money, beautiful spouse, fame, healthy children) and yet his behaviors appears to be so disrespectful, uncherishing and ungrateful. That Tiger has so much and did not seem to be able to enjoy or appreciate it is confusing for many. His choices affected himself, his wife, his kids, his wife's family, and all the people who counted on him.

Onto another person who touched the world as a child. The world also had an attachment to John John (JFK Jr.). The photo of him saluting his father's coffin solidified him into hearts everywhere. The idea of a child losing his father is something everyone could feel and at any age is life changing. When JFK Jr. died in a plane crash, it was a similar sense of what happened with Michael Jackson, "A child I once knew has died."

Britany Spears is another person who has been in the public eye since she was a child on the Mickey Mouse Club and the public interest in her well being as she has gone through her multiple challenges has also been enormous.

My theory that the interest in Tiger Woods is not just based on his celebrity or money is supported by the fact that Kobe Bryant and many others have had infidelity accusations -- but not the same response. There is something different when you have followed someone since they were a child and it is even stronger if you were a child following the child celebrity. There is an emotional response and attachment.

Part Two: The other part of the theory has to do with feeling comfortable when things are going well. Sometimes life can be going extremely well, and a colleague or friend will say, "I'm anxious. Everything is so perfect, I am worried that the other shoe will drop." Usually, there is no other shoe, just the normal anxiety of life getting better.

In the back of many people's minds is a fear that someone or something that they care about deeply will be taken away. (That is one reason that women and men will have affairs with married or otherwise physically or emotionally unavailable people, to avoid the strong emotional bond that would normally develop with an available peer and possible devastating and painful loss down the road. Both parties are at a safe distance.)

In the case of Tiger Woods, all of this information has also pushed buttons in married women whose husbands may have been working late or been unavailable by phone while on a business trip. Was he telling her the truth? When he told her that her concerns were unwarranted or silly. Was it genuine or a cover up? Tiger Wood's story is many people's worst fear -- that the goodness in their life can just fall apart and disintegrate overnight. That the happiness they feel isn't real and won't last.

I read a story about Tiger first asking Elin out and how he was so nervous he couldn't do it and had his friend do it for him. How he proposed to her on a walk at Sunset and how of all the women he could have dated and married, he picked her. They took their time getting to know each other, they seemed so compatible and had a beautiful wedding. Contrast that with the news today.

So, with Michael Jackson and Tiger Woods, my theory is that their amazing talent and iconic presence on TV and in the media since they were children created a strong emotional bond with fans as either a childhood peer, a nephew or a brother. And the death or betrayal of an image has startled and saddened those who had followed them and cheered for them.

Here are questions I do not have an answer to. I would like to hear what you think? Please help me answer them.

1) What other death has had the outpouring of global emotion of that Michael Jackson's passing created? (Lady Diana is the one that comes closest in my mind)

2) What other person has been followed since they were a child who will take the number one place of most cheered for and most beloved in now that Tiger is having such enormous problems?

3) Who else did you watch grow up and cheer for or who entertained us as children when they were kids?