Celebrity Worship And The American Mind

01/09/2017 05:36 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2018

We, as the viewing audience, are drawn to celebrities and famous people in ways we are not even aware. Within the lives of the celebrated lie the hopes and dreams of the rest of us.

As sitting ducks, if you will, or sitting persons, our minds are like sponges for incoming data and information, because the mind by its very nature is curious. If not for that, it would be difficult to survive. So the mind, and the brain activity that comprises what we have come to consider as "the mind," rapidly assesses, absorbs, and decides most things in milliseconds. With the process so swift, oftentimes we haven't a clue as to why we decide what we decide when we decide it. Our minds are swept away by deluded assumptions, as we bet all we have on our "rightness" when, in fact, in that very instance we are wrong. I know because I have been guilty of it countless times myself. Therefore, our minds, so to speak, often have minds of their own.

There is research pointing to the extent to which the viewing public is hijacked, unawares, into to the deluded thinking that comes with celebrity dynamics. From hours of viewing our favorite TV shows, listening to our favorite podcast, or following our favorite social media star, we have made decisions and taken for fact many un-factual things. After repeatedly tuning into the reality TV show of the time: from Survivor, to Lost, to the Biggest Loser, to the coast-to-coast Housewives shows, to the new Celebrity Apprentice, our brains are bathed in this unreal "reality look-alike" genre. Water cooler fare is now consumed with the minutia of the unreality, from Kim & Kanye to our favorite "housewife" to [fill in the latest bachelor & bachelorette here].

In the context of worshiping celebrities in ways that find us blind-sighted, there is actual research on the topic. In my doctoral dissertation on the psychology of fame and celebrity, I examined much of it. The following are some quotes and paraphrased sections of my research analysis, and its underlying query into the relationship between celebrity and the rest of us. My operating question was:

To what extent ... do celebrities carry the hopes and aspirations of the society that celebrates them? And what is at stake for the celebrity if the public over-identifies with his or her pop icon image? In order to understand the celebrity's being-in-the-world within the experience of being famous, it is important to look at both sides of the celebrity/fan relationship, because it is ultimately through fan appraisal that celebrity is defined.

Researchers Horton & Wohl first described this media oriented one-way relationship between the celebrity and a "fan" in 1956, as a parasocial relationship. In 1987, Rubin & McHugh defined parasocial relationships as "...a type of intimate, friend-like relationship that occurs between a mediated persona and a viewer. ...As time goes on, predictability about the character is increased. The character is reliable. The fan is loyal." The research shows that parasocial relationships are encouraged by several factors: (1) degree of reality approximation of the persona and the media, (2) frequency and consistency of appearance by the persona, (3) stylized behavior and conversational manner of the persona, and (4) effective use of the formal features of television. According Rubin, Perse, & Powell's 1985 study, Loneliness, Parasocial Interaction, and Local Television News Viewing, "these factors work together to make the persona a predictable, nonthreatening, and, hence, perfect role partner for the viewer."

By examining celebrity as a cultural linchpin within a growing global fascination with fame, being famous, and those who are famous, we can better understand a dynamic that plays out at an unconscious level, controlling our thoughts and behaviors in ways it would be best to become aware. Are we choosing opinions and and worldviews with at least some degree of personal agency, or are we absorbing messages flooding into our consciousness and embedded in unconscious drives derived from external media sources, each faction aligned with its own seeds of propaganda (to further their own causes and missions), strategies of disinformation (to deflect attention away from actual intelligent analysis), to that which hypes and ballyhoos the particular "brand" in question (with motivational undertones that seek out personal, corporate, and institutional advancement and fiscal growth at all costs), with the results, oftentimes, of humanity be damned?

I remember in college reading the book Subliminal Seduction, which spoke to the way advertisers and others seek to sneak triggers into our subconscious mind chatter so that, on autopilot, we act out buying behaviors that bring us into their purchasing tents. This sort of manipulation of perceived needs underwrites the advertising industry, and in some sense, capitalism itself, which in its present form cannot exist without consumers to buy products which generate the capital and churn the markets, profits, and growth. We become unwitting "fans" of the products we consume, and create parasocial relationships with the celebrity barkers and salespeople who tout the product's exceptionalism.

Many years ago former music writer, now Winchester University senior psychology lecturer, David Giles decided to conduct research on the parasocial aspects of celebrity relationships after observing the lifestyle of musicians he interviewed. While he was attending a concert in Switzerland to interview "a very minor pop band who were never going to make it big," he reports realizing that "all bands in the music business were surrounded by sycophants." Most all celebrities are.

A sycophant, as described by the Merriam Webster dictionary is "a person who praises powerful people in order to get their approval." And charismatic celebrities can make sycophants from even the most grounded of us, who will throw away all self-respect and exhibit "fawning" behavior when in the presence of a famous person. The problem begins when fans over identify with celebrities. Film director Martin Scorsese describes the mind-hijacking dynamic of parasocial adoration in The King of Comedy, his meditation on the sublime absurdity of the fan-star relationship in which abject allegiance to a fantasy figure is played out in real life. In the movie, out of a sense of fame-lust, a couple of obsessed fans (Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard) kidnap their favorite TV star (Jerry Lewis). Scorsese described how he sees the fan's out-of-whack attachment to celebrities:

You really get to love them. They don't know you. But you love them. But you love, I think, what you imagine they are. You put more into the person to a certain extent than they may even be giving out on the screen, because they represent a dream. You lose yourself in those people.
Finally when you do "satisfy the request of a fan," after saying a few things--after [they] say, "I really loved your last film. I thought you were great. You really meant a lot to me." Well, like what's next? Ultimately what do they want? What do they want from you?

In a study investigating levels of what is called "Celebrity Worship" in the general public, a full 1/3 of the population was found to suffer from what the authors describe as "borderline-pathological" levels of "Celebrity Worship Syndrome," evidencing a preoccupation with a favorite celebrity.

In the 2003 study, researchers Maltby, Houran & McCutcheon defined the phenomenon as a three-tiered parasocial relationship hierarchy between fans and celebrities, with an "Absorption-Addiction" model to explain the etiology of Celebrity Worship Syndrome:

According to this model, a compromised identity structure in some individuals facilitates psychological absorption with a celebrity in an attempt to establish an identity and a sense of fulfillment. The dynamics of the motivational forces driving this absorption might in turn take on an addictive component, leading to more extreme (and perhaps delusional) behaviors to sustain the individual's satisfaction with the parasocial relationship. Several studies based on the Celebrity Attitude Scale ... are consistent with this proposed model and suggest that there are three increasingly more extreme sets of attitudes and behaviors associated with celebrity worship.

The questionnaire sheds light on the depths of the parasocial relationship, as the three levels of absorption move from a low level of Entertainment-social, defined through survey answers such as, "My friends and I like to discuss what my favorite celebrity has done," to the intermediate level, characterized by Intense-personal feelings, defined by responses like, "I consider my favorite celebrity to be my soul mate," and "I have frequent thoughts about my celebrity, even when I don't want to," to the Borderline-pathological level, reflected in answers like, "If someone gave me several thousand dollars (pounds) to do with as I please, I would consider spending it on a personal possession (like a napkin or paper plate) once used by my favorite celebrity," and "If I were lucky enough to meet my favorite celebrity, and he/she asked me to do something illegal as a favor I would probably do it."

Interestingly, in their 2002 investigation, McCutcheon, Lange & Houran conclude that in both pathological and nonpathological forms of Celebrity Worship, the deeper levels reflect an attempt to soothe an "empty self":


Addiction [to celebrities] has likewise been conceptualized as a search for a solid identity and social role ... and compulsive and obsessional elements are noted at advanced stages of addiction ... Thus, while absorption can partially account for the vividness of delusions related to dissociative experience ... the progression along our hierarchy of celebrity worship might reflect increases in the thresholds of the need and capacity of psychological absorption. In other words, worshippers might develop a "tolerance" to behaviors that initially satisfied their need for absorption. As a result, celebrity worshippers must progressively evidence stronger dissociative behaviors in order to feel adequately connected to the celebrity.

In fact, the study's author James Houran told Katie Couric on the Today Show in 2003 that there is no refuge from celebrity influence:

We're not just a media saturated society but an entertainment saturated society, and so we turn to these celebrities for all aspects of our life. Now these figures are larger than life. Celebrities just don't sell us products anymore; it's not just for entertainment. But now you start seeing entertainment being part of mainstream media, mainstream news shows. You can't get away from it. We are bombarded by it wherever we look.

Celebrities, rather than being authentic and freely expressing human beings, are actually images that are framed, groomed, packaged and highly produced solely for the purpose of dissemination through mass media onto our living room television sets, and through the Internet to our device screens. As audience members, we are spoon fed these images, more or less helpless to what we see, hear, and feel. For example, in 2000, researchers Auter & Palmgreen found that "there was a positive relationship between television viewing level and parasocial interaction in adolescents." While the level was less than they thought, the researchers believe the more a person views a celebrity, the more invested in a parasocial relationship the fan may become.

In the place of role models and examples of altruistic heroism, we search for solutions to our problems by living through forms of media escapism, and the celebrities who rise up from it. Even as far back as 1983, author Barbara Goldsmith wrote in a New York Times Magazine piece titled, The Meaning of Celebrity that:

Image is essential to the celebrity because the public judges him by what it sees--his public posture as distinguished from his private person. Entertainers are particularly adept at perfecting their images, learning to refine the nuances of personality. Indeed, the words "celebrity" and "personality" have become interchangeable in our language.

As a result, she described a society that:

...encourages us to manufacture our fantasies while simultaneously destroying our former role models and ripping away the guideposts of the past. The result is that we have created synthetic celebrities whom we worship, however briefly, because they vicariously act out our noblest or basest desires.

Unknowingly, through our bonding and parasocial relationships with various celebrities, perhaps we are seeking something that is Freudian, after all, casting us in our own psyches as abandoned children, fearful and buffeted by existential and emotional vagaries that rise up, and leave us raw, exposed and vulnerable in a world where regardless of how diligently we strive, we discover how little control we actually have over our life's path.

As suggested by sociologist Ernest van den Haag in Goldsmith's article, the blind worshiping of celebrity, in the end, in all its forms, may amount to nothing more than our basic, hungering and continuing need for authority figures, like our parents.

References

Auter, P. J., & Palmgreen, P. (2000). Development and validation of a parasocial interaction measure: The audience-persona interaction scale. Communication Research Reports, 17, 79-89.

Couric, K. (2003, September 18). The Today Show [Television broadcast]. New York: National Broadcasting Company.

Goldsmith, B. (1983, December 4). The meaning of celebrity. The New York Times
Magazine, pp. 76-120.

Horton, D., & Wohl, R. (1956). Mass communication and para-social interaction:
Observations on intimacy at a distance. Psychiatry, 19, 215-229.

Maltby, J., Houran, J., & McCutcheon, L. E. (2003). A clinical interpretation of
attitudes and behaviors associated with celebrity worship. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 191, 25-29.

McCutcheon, L. E., Lange, R., & Houran, J. (2002). Conceptualization and measurement of celebrity worship. British journal of psychology, 93(1), 67-87.

Rockwell, D. (2004). "Celebrity and Being-in-the-world: The Experience of Being Famous. A Phenomenological Investigation." Center for Humanistic Studies 2004: 15-80, Dissertations & Theses: The Humanities and Social Sciences Collection. Proquest. California State University, San Luis Obispo, CA., 17 Jan 2008

Rubin, A. M., Perse, E. M., & Powell, R. A. (1985). Loneliness, para-social interaction and local television news viewing. Human Communication Research, 12(2), 155-180.

Rubin, R. B., & McHugh, M. P. (1987). Development of para-social interaction relationships. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 3, 279-292.

Scorsese, M. (1983). The king of comedy. A shot at the top: Making of a featurette
[Motion Picture]. United States: Embassy International Pictures.

Summers, K. (2000, September 7). Fame: It brought one of these men all he wished for--and led to the death of the other; Coventry University psychology lecturer examines the joys and despair of celebrities whose lives are constantly in the public eye. Coventry Evening Telegraph, p. 1 of 2

Dr. Donna Rockwell is a clinical psychologist who works with celebrity clients, and is writing a book on the psychology of fame. Follow Dr. Rockwell on Facebook, and Twitter @drdonnarockwell, and at her website: mindfulcure.com