One of the recurring questions I am often asked to comment on by the media is whether celebrities are more prone to addiction than other groups of people. One of the problems in trying to answer what looks like an easy question is that the definition of ‘celebrity’ is different to different people. Most people would argue that celebrities are famous people, but are all famous people celebrities? Are well-known sportspeople and politicians ‘celebrities’? Are high profile criminals celebrities? While all of us would say that Hollywood A-Listers such as Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts are ‘celebrities’, many of the people that end up on ‘celebrity’ reality shows are far from what I would call a celebrity. Being the girlfriend or relative of someone famous does not necessarily famous.
Another problem in trying to answer this question is what kinds of addiction are the media actually referring to? Implicitly, the question might be referring to alcohol and/or illicit drug addictions but why should other addictions such as nicotine addiction or addiction to prescription drugs not be included? In addition to this, I have often been asked to comment on celebrities that are addicted to sex or gambling. However, if we include behavioural addictions in this definition of addiction, then why not include addictions to shopping, eating, or exercise? If we take this to an extreme, how many celebrities are addicted to work?
Now that I’ve aired these problematic definitional issues (without necessarily trying to answer them), I will return to the question of whether celebrities are more prone to addiction. To me, when I think about what a celebrity is, I think of someone who is widely known by most people, is usually in the world of entertainment (actor, singer, musician, television presenter), and may have more financial income than most other people I know. When I think about these types of people, I’ve always said to the media that it doesn’t surprise me when such people develop addictions. Given these situations, I would argue that high profile celebrities may have greater access to some kinds of addictive substances.
Given that there is a general relationship between accessibility and addiction, it shouldn’t be a surprise if a higher proportion of celebrities succumbs to addictive behaviours compared with a member of the general public. The ‘availability hypothesis’ may also hold true for various behavioural addictions that celebrities have admitted having – most notably addictions to gambling and/or sex. It could perhaps be argued that high profile celebrities are richer than most of us (and could therefore afford to gamble more than you or I) or they have greater access to sexual partners because they are seen as more desirable (because of their perceived wealth and/or notoriety).
Firstly, when I think about celebrities that have ‘gone off the rails’ and admitted to having addiction problems (Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey Jr, Alec Baldwin) and those that have died from their addiction (Whitney Houston, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse) I would argue that these types of high profile celebrity have the financial means to afford a drug habit like cocaine or heroin. For many in the entertainment business such as being the lead singer in a famous rock band, taking drugs may also be viewed as one of the defining behaviours of the stereotypical ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ lifestyle. In short, it’s almost expected. In an interview with an online magazine The Fix, Dr. Scott Teitelbaum, an American psychiatrist based at the University of Florida:
“Some people who become famous and get put on a pedestal begin to think of themselves differently and lose their sense of humility. And this is something you can see with addicts, too. Famous or not, people in the midst of their addiction will behave in a narcissistic, selfish way: they’ll be anti-social and have a disregard for rules and regulations. But that is part of who they as an addict – not necessarily who they would be as a sober person. Then there are some people who are narcissists outside of their disease, who don’t need a drug or alcohol addiction to make them feel like the rules don’t apply to them – and yes, I have seen in this in many athletes and actors. Of course, you also have non-famous people who struggle with both…People with addiction and people with narcissism share a similar emptiness inside. Those who are famous might fill it with achievement or with drugs and alcohol. That’s certainly not the case for everyone. But when you see people who are both famous and narcisstic – people who struggle with staying right-sized or they don’t have a real sense of who they are without the fame – you know that they’re in trouble… People with addiction and people with narcissism both seek outside sources for inside happiness. And ultimately neither the fame nor the drugs nor the drinking will work”.
The same article also pointed out that there is an increase in the number of people who (usually through reality television) are becoming (in)famous but have no discernable talent whatsoever. In my own writings on the psychology of fame, I have made the point that (historically) fame was a by-product of a particular role (e.g., country president, news anchorman) or talent (e.g., captain of the national sports team, a great actor). While the Andy Warhol maxim that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes will never be truly fulfilled, the large increase in the number of media outlets and number of reality television shows suggests that more people than ever are getting their 15 minutes of fame. In short, the intersection between fame and addiction is on the increase. US psychiatrist Dr. Dale Archer was also interviewed for The Fix article and was quoted as saying:
“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 it [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. The special treatment, the publicity, the ego. Fame has the potential to be incredibly addicting”.
I argued some of these same points in a previous blog on whether fame can be addictive in and of itself. Another related factor I am asked about is the effect of having fame from an early age and whether this can be a pre-cursor or risk factor for later addiction. Dr. Archer was also asked about this and claimed:
“The younger you are when you get famous, the greater the likelihood that you’re going to suffer consequences down the road. If you grow up as a child star, you realize that you can get away with things other people can’t. There is a loss of self and a loss of emotional growth and a loss of thinking that you need to work in relationship with other people”.
I’m broadly in agreement with this although my guess is that this only applies to a minority of child stars rather than being a general truism. However, trying to carry out scientific research examining early childhood experiences of fame amongst people that are now adult is difficult (to say the least). There also seems to be a lot of children and teenagers who’s only desire when young is “to be famous” when they are older. As most who have this aim will ultimately fail, there is always the concern that to cope with this failure, they will turn to addictive substances and/or behaviours.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, 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.
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
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