Stars in their highs: The psychology of ‘addiction to fame’ (revisited)
A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by The Face magazine who wanted to know if fame can be addictive. I looked at this issue in one of my first articles published on this website as well as a number of other articles related to fame (such as ones on Celebrity Worship Syndrome, the psychology of being starstruck, celebriphilia [the pathological desire to have sex with a celebrity], celebrity endorsements in gambling advertising, and whether famous people are more susceptible to addictive behaviour). I ended up doing the interview via email and given that when The Face eventually publish their article I am unlikely to get more than a few soundbites, I thought I would publish my responses to the questions I was asked here.
The Face: Why do we desire fame?
Obviously not everyone wants to be famous but for those that desire it there are many reasons why they would want it. On a pragmatic level it is because fame might lead to benefits such as having more money, power, being pampered, living a life of luxury and/or greater sexual success, etc. On a psychological level it may lead to something that overcomes feelings of insecurity or feeds a need to be adored by others. Many people are famous as a by-product of what they do (e.g., being a professional sportsman, politician, etc.). Here, the desire is to do well in the chosen profession and fame is not usually the primary motivating factor. However, it is also worth noting that once someone has become famous and then are unable to maintain their public profile (e.g., a footballer retiring from the sport), those who desire fame will often do other things (e.g., reality TV) as a way of keeping themselves in the public eye.
The Face: Is fame an addiction?
Addiction to anything relies on constant rewards (what we psychologists call ‘reinforcement’). You cannot become addicted to something that doesn’t have constant rewards – and being famous can obviously bring constant rewards. I would class something as being an addiction if it fulfils six criteria. All of these have to be present to be a genuine addiction.
- Salience –This occurs when fame becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialised behaviour).
- Mood modification – This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of being famous (e.g. the euphoric feelings that accompany the activities that they engage in).
- Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of time spent trying to achieve and/or maintain fame.
- Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.), that occur when the person feels they are no longer famous and/or in the public eye.
- Conflict – This is when the desire to be famous results in conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control about achieving and/or maintaining fame).
- Relapse – This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive time spent trying to achieve and/or maintain fame.
My own view is that it is theoretically possible for individuals to be addicted to fame but the number that would fulfil all my criteria would be few and far between.
The Face: You have asked the question of what substance the people addicted to fame are actually addicted to. Couldn’t it just be validation?
The ‘object’ of fame addiction is likely to be highly idiosyncratic and individualistic (just like those individuals who are addicted to work). The rewards and reinforcements will be different for different people. Validation is a plausible generic factor as is feeling of wanting to be adored.
The Face: Is there any biological similarity between what an addictive substance like cocaine does to the brain and what fame does?
There is no empirical evidence to answer such a question but on a biological level, anything that we do that makes us feel good leads to increases in serotonin (which at a basic level leads to feelings of positive wellbeing and happiness) which leads to an increase in the body’s own drug-like chemicals (endorphins – opioid neuropeptides), and ultimately leading to increases of the neurotransmitter dopamine (often characterised as the body’s own chemical ‘pleasure’ producer)
The Face: Does the behaviour of people ‘addicted’ to fame mirror that of other addicts?
If we are going to call fame an ‘addiction’ it has to mirror the signs, symptoms, and consequences of other addictions. Consequently, very few people would be classed as addicted using my criteria above. For many individuals, fame might have addictive elements rather than being an addiction per se.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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/