Starstruck: Is fame addictive?

Back in the mid-1990s, I started doing some research on the psychology of fame with Dr. Adam Joinson (then at the University of Glamorgan but now at the Open University). One of the first things we did after setting up our website (the not-so-originally titled ‘The Psychology of Fame Project’) was go and interview PR guru and ‘fame-maker’ Max Clifford. We enjoyed our interview and published it in a 1998 issue of Psychology Post. One of the more interesting claims made by Max Clifford was his assertion that fame is addictive. Below is an extended extract from our interview with him. He said that:

“The sad part about [fame] is people that desperately need to become famous. It’s like a drug, it’s like a drug addict, and there’s so many people that come up and then they go, and when you meet them they are desperate, desperate for it. I mean, they are living ten, fifteen, twenty years ago when they were famous, they can’t accept they are no longer famous. It is an addiction. It’s a craving. It varies from individual to individual but it’s the same as drugs or alcohol or anything else. At it’s worst – and I’ve known a lot of the worst – it totally takes over your life, your philosophy, your outlook on everyday life. It’s tragic. The way it normally works is that somebody becomes famous so they follow the natural path. In other words, the bigger house, the bigger car, the bigger everything. They tend to isolate themselves from people that actually know them and possibly care about them because they aren’t there any more.

They then become surrounded by people who live off them, pick off them – PR’s, managers, PA’s – who say what the person wants to hear all the time. They become wrapped up in fame and get a totally jaundiced picture of life and reality. Life becomes emptier and emptier and then when the fame’s gone, they can’t handle it. There’s so many people who would do anything. Anything to be famous. It’s more important almost than life itself. It’s sad, it’s shocking, and it’s frightening. Not everybody, but there seems to be more and more and more. Maybe just more and more of them are making their way to my door. I don’t know. Fame is becoming a bigger drug than ever”.

So can fame really be an addiction? There are certainly those in both the academic and medical community who think that it can although empirical evidence is hard to come by.

In a 2011 interview with the US newspaper Palm Beach Post about his conference paper ‘Power, fame, and recovery’, the US psychiatrist Dr. Reef Karim said “Little kids today don’t want to be doctors or lawyers. They just want to be famous”. He is concerned about what happens when fame is the actual addiction. As I have noted in my own research, fame used to only be a by-product of a person’s talent in another field (acting, singing, sport, politics, etc.). However, we now live n a culture where some people are just “famous for being famous”.

Dr. Karim said he has been treating people for “fame addiction” for a number of years and claims it is inextricably linked to the rise of television and the internet. (And I have also commented a number of times in the media that the rise of reality TV shows also play a role in fuelling the desire to become famous). Karim says there is a need to be validated and be adored externally.

In an interview with MSNBC News website, Beverly Hills psychologist Dr. Bethany Marshall appears to agree with Karim as she was quoted as saying: “a lot of our youth, their parents don’t love them unconditionally for who they are. The fantasy of being loved just for who you are without having to do anything”. In the same article, the anthropologist Dr. David Sloan Wilson (SUNY-Binghamton, USA) said: “Our minds are adapted for a small-scale society and what’s happening today is an out of control version of that. The lust for fame has taken on this pathological form that is much like our eating habits making us obese.” Dr. Robi Ludwig (again in the MSNBC story) commented that:

“Fame is so fleeting. People who achieve it, there’s no guarantee that they’ll maintain it. So, therein lies sort of the addictive loop. One of the concerns with celebrities who have made it is that they will lose it. There is this need for more and more. And just like with any addiction, it has less to do with actually the item that you’re seeing, so the fame is actually used as a mood enhancer. Fame helps a person to feel important, invaluable –  that they matter.”

As noted above, empirical evidence on fame being addictive is lacking. Jake Halpern (author of the book Fame Junkies) carried out a study with Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications and surveyed 650 children from New York about their attitudes toward fame and pop culture. When given the option to become stronger, smarter, famous, or more beautiful, boys chose fame almost as often as they chose intelligence, and girls chose it more often.

Psychologists Dr Donna Rockwell (Michegan School of Professional Psychology, USA) and Dr David Giles (Winchester University, UK) carried out a qualitative interview study with 15 well-known American celebrities (from the fields of politics, law, business, writing, sports, music, film, television news and entertainment). The study found that those interviewed felt that being famous had (for the people themselves) led to a loss of privacy, demanding expectations, gratification of ego needs, and symbolic immortality. Areas of psychological concern for celebrity mental health included isolation, and an unwillingness to give up fame. Based on their data, Rockwell and Giles argued that celebrity is a process involving four temporal phases – (i) a period of love/hate towards the experience; (ii) an addiction phase where behavior is directed solely towards the goal of remaining famous; (iii) an acceptance phase, requiring a permanent change in everyday life routines; and (iv) an adaptation phase, where new behaviors are developed in response to life changes involved in being famous. In relation to addiction, the authors noted:

“The lure of adoration is attractive, and it becomes difficult for the person to imagine living without fame. One participant said, ‘It is somewhat of a high,’ and another, ‘I kind of get off on it.’ One said, ‘I’ve been addicted to almost every substance known to man at one point or another, and the most addicting of them all is fame.’ Where does the celebrity go when fame passes; having become dependent on fame, how does one adjust to being less famous over time? ‘As the sun sets on my fame,’ one celebrity said, ‘I’m going to have to learn how to put it in its proper place.’ The adjustment can be a difficult one”.

There are also addiction links in relation to whether those who are famous are more susceptible to developing other types of addiction. I have appeared on a number of television shows (such as Channel 4’s Celebrity Rehab) and the film Starsuckers talking about this issue.

In a recent article on the magazine The Fix, Dr. Dale Archer (Lake Charles Memorial Hospital, USA) made some observations that I have noted myself. He said:

“Fame and addiction are definitely related. Those who are prone to addiction get a much higher high from things – whether it’s food, shopping, gambling or fame – which means [the behavior or situation] will trigger cravings. When we get an addictive rush, we are getting a dopamine spike. If you talk to anyone who performs at all, they will talk about the ‘high’ of performing. And many people who experience that high report that when they’re not performing, they don’t feel as well. All of which is a good setup for addiction. People also get high from all the trappings that come with fame,” he says. “The special treatment, the publicity, the ego. Fame has the potential to be incredibly addicting”.

I suspect it will be a long time – if ever – that fame is described as a genuine addiction, mainly because there is the question of what such people are actually addicted to (a point that I have made in other papers of mine in relation to ‘internet addiction’). Are they addicted to the adoration and praise of their fans? Greater access to sexual partners and sexual conquests? The money they earn? The buzz of performing? All of the above? The bottom line is that “fame” is not an activity like gambling, sex or exercise that have definitional boundaries. Therefore, in the case of “fame” the object of addiction and the rewards gained may come from many different forms of reinforcement.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. & Joinson, A. (1998). Max-imum impact: The psychology of fame. Psychology Post, 6, 8-9.

Halpern, J. (2007). Fame Junkies. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

McGuinness, K. (2012). Are Celebrities More Prone to Addiction? The Fix, January, 18. Located at: http://www.thefix.com/content/fame-and-drug-addiction-celebrity-addicts100001

Rockwell, D. & Giles, D.C. (2009). Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 40, 178-210.

Streeter, L.G. (2011), Doctor helps people beat their fame addiction. Palm Beach Post, October 3. Located at:  http://www.palmbeachpost.com/health/doctor-helps-people-beat-their-fame-addiction-1892781.html

Turner, M. (2007). Addicted to fame: Stars and fans share affliction. MSNBC Entertainment News, August 9. Located at: http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/20199608/ns/today-entertainment/t/addicted-fame-stars-fans-share-affliction/

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About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Gambling Studies at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 430 research papers, three books, over 120 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on April 10, 2012, in Addiction, Compulsion, Obsession, Popular Culture, Psychology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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