Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Our Fascination with Celebrities

The public is fascinated by endless stories of Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears, Angelina Jolie, and other entertainers. While this has been the case since Hollywood PR Machine created movie stars, people react differently today to the antics of celebrities. 

"There was a time not too long ago when gossip and scandal brought the famous down to earth," says Cooper Lawrence in her book, The Cult of Personality: What Our Fascination with the Stars Reveal about Us. "It humbled them and made them appear more like us, with faults and eccentricities, their lives not so different from ours. This is no longer the case. Today, gossip and scandal are the currency of Hollywood."


Fans consider celebrities friends: Paris Hilton is here promoting her cell-phone video game: Jewel Jam during the E3 Video Game Convention.
Photo Credit: © Glenn Francis, 2006, www.PacificProDigital.com
Even so, fans disregard the negatives and view celebrities with a mixture of envy and adoration. The celebrity represents for many the ideal life of money, sex and a carefree attitude of unconstrained living. In other words, celebrities live large. 

And by dint of following their every move, we become privy to their world, or at least think we do. Such is the explanation of evolutionary psychology, or EP. We need to know how our friends are doing. 

"Human brains are tricked into believing that celebrities are part of our concentric circle of friends," says Gad Saad, Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business in Montreal.  He also writes a well-known and highly popular blog for Psychology Today, Home Consumericus.

Equally compelling, we believe celebrities are friends, Prof. Saad explains, "by virtue of their being invited into our proverbial living rooms on numerous occasions, be it when we watch them on television or in films. Hence, an affective system that evolved to care about social information about friends is usurped in the service of caring about celebrities, who are in a sense 'pseudo-friends'. "


Angelina Jolie at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 2005. Although a celebrity, many credit Jolie for doing good work. Photo Credit: © World Economic Forum (2005).
Like any good friend we desire, Prof Saad says, "to exchange social information, like gossip, on matters of evolutionary import, including infidelity and loss of social status." Prof. Saad has written about the cult of celebrity and other important matters facing humans in his critically acclaimed book, The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption.

Yet, the putative friendship is definitely uni-directional, and thus fans are sure to be disappointed, Ms. Lawrence says, because celebrities are not really like us. "Celebrities hold a unique position in our society. There are only a handful of them, singled out for attention and adoration from their anonymous mass of fans."

That is a telling comment, and a sad reality. When people worship celebrities, both the giver and the receiver of the affection lose something very valuable: their dignity.