A brief psychological overview
Part of the Starfuckers Explained series
Celebrity worship syndrome has been described as an obsessive-addictive disorder where an individual becomes overly involved and interested (i.e., completely obsessed) with the details of the personal life of a celebrity. Any person who is “in the public eye” can be the object of a person’s obsession (e.g., authors, politicians, journalists), but research and criminal prosecutions suggest they are more likely to be someone from the world of television, film and/or pop music.
Among academic researchers, the term ‘celebrity worship’ (CW) is a term that was first coined by Dr. Lynn McCutcheon and her research colleagues in the early 2000s. However, it is commonly believed that the first use of the term ‘Celebrity Worship Syndrome’ (CWS) was in a Daily Mail article by the journalist James Chapman (in an article entitled “Do you worship the celebs?”) who was reporting on a study published by Dr. John Maltby and colleagues in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease entitled “A Clinical Interpretation of Attitudes and Behaviors Associated with Celebrity Worship”. CWS was actually an acronym for the ‘Celebrity Worship Scale’ used in the study. Chapman also called the behavior exhibited by such people as “Mad Icon Disease” (obviously a play on ‘Mad Cow Disease’ that was high on the news agenda in the UK at the time).
Despite the (presumably) accidental misnomer, the condition may in fact be indeed indicative of a syndrome (i.e., a cluster of abnormal or unusual symptoms indicating the presence of an unwanted condition). US research carried out on a small sample in the early 2000s by Dr. Lynn McCutcheon’s team using the ‘Celebrity Attitudes Scale’ suggested a single ‘celebrity worship’ dimension. However, subsequent research on much bigger samples by Dr. Maltby and his team identified three independent dimensions of celebrity worship. These were on a continuum and named (i) entertainment-social, (ii) intense-personal, and (iii) borderline pathological.
The entertainment-social dimension relates to attitudes where individuals are attracted to a celebrity because of their perceived ability to entertain and to become a social focus of conversation with likeminded others.
The intense-personal dimension relates to individuals that have intensive and compulsive feelings about a celebrity.
The borderline-pathological dimension relates to individuals who display uncontrollable behaviors and fantasies relating to a celebrity.
Maltby and colleagues have now published numerous papers on celebrity worship and have found that there is a correlation between the pathological aspects of CWS and poor mental health in UK participants (i.e., high anxiety, more depression, high stress levels, increased illness, poorer body image). Most of these studies have been carried out on adults. However, studies relating to body image have also included adolescents, and have found that among teenage females (aged 14 to 16 years) there is a relationship between intense-personal celebrity worship and body image (i.e., those teenage girls who identify with celebrities have much poorer body image compared to other groups studied). Maltby’s team’s research also seems to indicate that the most celebrity-obsessed individuals often suffer high levels of dissociation and fantasy-proneness.
Dr. Maltby summarized his team’s research in an interview to the BBC. He said:
‘Data from 3,000 people showed only around 1% demonstrate obsessional tendencies. Around 10% (who tend to be neurotic, tense, emotional and moody) displayed intense interest in celebrities. Around 14% said they would make a special effort to read about their favorite celebrity and to socialize with people who shared their interest. The other 75% of the population do not take any interest in celebrities' lives. Generally, the vast majority of people will identify a favorite celebrity, but don't say they read about them or think about them all the time. Like most things, its fine as long as it doesn't take over your life".
The same article sought other scientific views from a biological angle. They reported that:
“Evolutionary biologists say it is natural for humans to look up to individuals who receive attention because they have succeeded in a society. In prehistoric times, this would have meant respecting good hunters and elders. But as hunting is not now an essential skill and longevity is more widely achievable, these qualities are no longer revered. Instead, we look to celebrities, whose fame and fortune we want to emulate. Evolutionary anthropologist Francesco Gill-White from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia told New Scientist: ‘It makes sense for you to rank individuals according to how successful they are at the behaviors you are trying to copy, because whoever is getting more of what everybody wants is probably using above-average methods’. But Dr Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Liverpool, said following celebrities did not necessarily mean they were seen as role models. ’We're fascinated even when we don't go out of our way to copy them’. He said people watched how celebrities behaved because they received a great deal of wealth from society and people wanted to ensure it was invested properly”.
Maltby and colleague’s reasearch also shows that CW is not just the remit of adolescent females but affects over a quarter of the people they surveyed (across the three levels mentioned earlier). Their paper in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, reported that CW brought both positive and negative consequences. People who worshipped celebrities for entertainment and social reasons were more optimistic, outgoing, and happy. Those who worshipped celebrities for personal reasons or were more obsessive were more depressed, more anxious, more solitary, more impulsive, more anti-social and more troublesome.