It’s in the stars: A brief psychological overview of Celebrity Worship Syndrome

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 (DeVry University, US) 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 (University of Leicester, UK) 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 behaviour 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 behaviours 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 favourite 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 favourite 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 behaviours 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. So where do you fit into this in terms of celebrity worship? I’ll leave you with some statements so you can assess your own level of celerity worship (I answered ‘no’ to all nine statements)..

- Say yes to the following and you may have low-level CWS:

  • My friends and I like to discuss what my favourite celebrity has done.
  • I enjoy watching my favourite celebrity.
  • Learning the life story of my favourite celebrity is a lot of fun.

- Agree with these more intense feelings and you may have a moderate case of CWS:

  • I consider my favourite celebrity to be my soul mate.
  • I have a special bond with my celebrity.
  • I have frequent thoughts about my celebrity, even when I don’t want to.

- Agree with these and you may be obsessed, borderline pathological and suffering seriously from CWS:

  • If someone gave me several thousand 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 favourite celebrity.
  • If I were lucky enough to meet my favourite celebrity, and they asked me to do something illegal as a favour I would probably do it.
  • I would be very upset if my favourite celebrity got married.

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

Further reading

BBC News (2003). Worshipping celebrities ‘brings success. August 13. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3147343.stm

Chapman, J. (2003). Do you worship the celebs? Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-176598/Do-worship-celebs.html

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

Maltby, J., Houran, M.A., & McCutcheon, L.E. (2003). A Clinical Interpretation of Attitudes and Behaviors Associated with Celebrity Worship. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 191, 25-29.

Maltby, J., Houran, J., Ashe, D., & McCutcheon, L.E. (2001). The self-reported psychological well-being of celebrity worshippers. North American Journal of Psychology, 3, 441-452.

Maltby, J., Day, L., McCutcheon, L.E., Gillett, R., Houran, J., & Ashe, D. (2004). Celebrity Worship using an adaptational-continuum model of personality and coping. British Journal of Psychology. 95, 411-428.

Maltby, J., Giles, D., Barber, L. & McCutcheon, L.E. (2005). Intense-personal Celebrity Worship and Body Image: Evidence of a link among female adolescents. British Journal of Health Psychology, 10, 17-32.

Maltby, J., Day, L., McCutcheon, L.E,. Gilett, R., Houran, J. & Ashe, D.D. (2004), ‘Personality and Coping: A Context for Examining Celebrity Worship and Mental Health. British Journal of Psychology, 95, 411-428.

Maltby, J., Day, L., McCutcheon, L.E., Houran, J. & Ashe, D. (2006). Extreme celebrity worship, fantasy proneness and dissociation: Developing the measurement and understanding of celebrity worship within a clinical personality context. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 273-283.

Shaffer, H. J., LaPlante, D. A., LaBrie, R. A., Kidman, R. C., Donato, A. N., & Stanton, M. V. (2004). Towards a syndrome model of addiction: Multiple expressions, common etiology. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 12, 1-8.

Wikipedia (2012). Celebrity Worship Syndrome. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celebrity_Worship_Syndrome

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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 July 10, 2012, in Addiction, Compulsion, Fame, Mania, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Popular Culture, Psychological disorders, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Dear proff. mark, i am really grateful when i read about this CWS and i really want to know how to measure it. I am going to use it in my research. I am sorry of my poor English, since i am from Malaysia. Regards, raiza.

  2. Everything is very open with a clear description of the
    challenges. It was definitely informative.
    Your site is very useful. Thanks for sharing!

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