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Stars in their eyes: Another look at Celebrity Worship Syndrome

Last week I did a number of media interviews about Celebrity Worship Syndrome (CWS) including the Metro newspaper (‘From Beyonce to Elvis, here’s the ugly truth about why we worship celebrities’) and the International Business Times (‘Crazy about Kylie Jenner? Professor of Behavioural Addiction explains celebrity obsession’). I also wrote an article for the Huffington Post. The ‘hook’ for all these stories was the DVD release of the film Kill The King (also known by the title Shangri La Suite) which tells the story of two 20-year old damaged lovers – Jack and Karen (played by Luke Grimes and Emily Browning) – who head to Los Angeles to kill rock ‘n’ roll legend Elvis Presley in the summer of 1974. While Jack’s obsession with Elvis is somewhat extreme, over the last two decades there has been an increasing amount of research into CWS.

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CWS has been described as an obsessiveaddictive disorder where an individual becomes overly involved and interested (in short, 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. Research suggests that CWS exists and that according to Dr. John Maltby and his colleagues (see ‘Further reading’ below) there are three independent dimensions of celebrity worship. These are 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.

Among adults, their research has shown that there is a correlation between the pathological aspects of CWS and poor mental health such as high anxiety, more depression, high stress levels, increased illness, and poorer body image. Among teenage females there is a relationship between intense-personal celebrity worship and body image (basically, teenage girls who identify with celebrities have much poorer body image compared to other groups). In addition, most celebrity-obsessed individuals often suffer high levels of dissociation and fantasy-proneness. Maltby’s research suggests about 1% of his participants have obsessional tendencies towards celebrities.

Research has also shown that worshipping celebrities can have both positive and negative consequences. People who worship celebrities for entertainment and social reasons have been found to be more optimistic, outgoing, and happy. Those who worship celebrities for personal reasons have been found to be more obsessive, more depressed, more anxious, more solitary, more impulsive, more anti-social and more troublesome. My own thoughts on CWS and celebrity culture are provided below and are from the interviews I did with the Metro and the International Business Times (IBT).

IBT: In a world filled with Kardashians, social media and vast consumerism, why do you think people are more obsessed with celebrities than ever?

MG: The first thing I would say is that most people are not obsessed with celebrities but there are probably a lot more people who are obsessed compared to a couple of decades ago (although this is speculation on my part as no research has ever examined the prevalence of celebrity obsession among a nationally representative sample). One study did estimate about 1% of their sample being obsessed with celebrities but there is no comparative study prior to that. However, I do think that the numbers of people who have celebrity obsessions has increased over the last 20 years and much of this is most likely due to the rise of celebrities using social media (and the fact that celebrities can now interact – if they want – hour by hour with their fan base) and the increase in general media coverage surrounding celebrity and celebrity lives (including a large increase in reality TV starring celebrities and an increase in the number of celebrity gossip magazines). These types of media and social media can give rise to what we psychologists call parasocial relationships. With respect to celebrities, parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, where fans express interest, time, money, and/or emotion in and/or on the celebrity (while the celebrity is totally unaware of the fan in any singular or specific sense).

IBT: Do you know what happens in the mind when we form an obsession or infatuation with some things? 

MG: Celebrity infatuations are nothing to particularly worry about because they tend to be intense but relatively short-lived admiration for the person. Celebrity obsessions can be of a lot more concern. At their simplest level, a celebrity obsession is when someone constantly thinks about a particular celebrity in a way that most people would describe as abnormal. This can be to the point where the obsession conflicts with most other things in the individual’s life including job or education, other relationships, and other hobbies. A person’s whole life can revolve around the celebrity and such individuals can end up spending way beyond their disposable income by buying their merchandise (CDs, DVDs, books, perfumes, clothing lines, etc.) and/or seeing them live on stage (singing, acting, etc.). There is no single explanation as to why someone might develop a celebrity obsession but many appear to start with a sexual attraction to the celebrity in question and have fantasies of what they would do if they met the object of their desire. Research has shown that there is a correlation between the pathological aspects of celebrity worship and poor mental health such as high anxiety, more depression, high stress levels, increased illness, and poorer body image. Among teenage females there is a relationship between intense-personal celebrity worship and body image (basically, teenage girls who identify with celebrities have much poorer body image compared to other groups). In addition, most celebrity-obsessed individuals often suffer high levels of dissociation and fantasy-proneness.

IBT: What does it have to take about a ‘celebrity’ for people to become obsessed?

MG: At a micro-level, 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. This is most likely because such celebrities tend to be more popular and have bigger followings in the public eye in media and on social media. At a micro-level, we are all individuals it could be something very idiosyncratic but given that the little research carried out tends to report that celebrity worshippers are sexually attracted to their celebrity of choice, then being good looking (at least in the eyes of the beholder) appears to be a common denominator.

IBT: How do you think today’s modern obsession with celebrity influenced and resounded throughout Kill the King?

MG: One of Jack’s reasons for being sent to a rehab centre – in addition to a drug addiction problem – is because of his “increasingly abnormal obsession” with Elvis Presley. While Jack’s obsession with Elvis is somewhat extreme and arguably a type of ‘Celebrity Worship Syndrome’, his character doesn’t seem to overlap too much with modern day celebrity worshippers. Jack’s character is more akin to celebrity stalkers or celebrity assassins (like John Lennon’s killer Mark Chapman) than the archetypal young female totally obsessed and besotted with their favourite pop star or actor. Given that Kill The King was set in 1974 and celebrity obsession (and Celebrity Worship Syndrome) is a more modern day phenomenon, I wouldn’t have expected that much overlap anyway.

Metro: Should we be worried about this kind of social media ‘bond’, seeing as icons like John Lennon were assassinated by fans who became obsessed with them?

MG: The chances of those things happening are few and far between. If someone is absolutely hooked on the idea of killing a celebrity, they’ll go and do it. I don’t think it’s to do with the rise of the mass media or anything like that. Most research says fandom is actually good for people. It gives them a hobby. Fans talk to other fans. It brings us together, and it can be life-affirming. I’m a massive, massive David Bowie fan. I’m a record collector, too and I’m probably more on the obsessive side than most people. But I don’t think I’m a worse person for that.

Metro: So what’s the difference between you and someone who spends thousands and thousands of pounds on plastic surgery to look more like their idol?

MG: Those are the real extreme cases. The good news is that recent research has shown that less than one per cent of people are really unhealthily obsessed with stars. And of those people, most are not going to do things that have negative effects on their life. In my opinion, the difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an unhealthy obsession is that enthusiasm adds to life, and addictions or obsessions take away from it. For most people, even those who have a compulsive element to their fandom like myself, it doesn’t have a negative effect on their quality of life. It’s probably better to buy records and memorabilia than designer handbags. Sometimes it’s not just about money, it’s about the time you spend as well. For one person, an obsession can be fine, and for another it can be very problematic. If a fan works in Tesco and they’re following their hero around the country, watching them night after night on tour and buying merchandise, they just don’t have the disposable income to do it. I could do that, thanks to my salary, but I can’t afford the time.

Metro: Is there a link between someone’s social background and their preference for celebrity culture?

MG: I don’t know the scientific link there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the lower the socio-economic class you’re in the more likely you are to be involved and like celebrity culture. ‘Gogglebox’ stars, for instance. The middle class, well-to-do people like current affairs, news and politics and those who are less well-off are probably more interested in EastEnders and things like that.

Metro: Are there any psychological issues that lead to celebrity worship?

MG: Those with celebrity worship syndrome tend to have worse mental health. They’re more likely to be anxious, depressed, to have high stress levels, increased bouts of illness and a poor body image. But it’s a case of the chicken or the egg, because these people might self-medicate through these parasocial relationships with celebs they’ll never even meet. 

Metro: What are the effects of celebrity culture? Particularly for young people?

MG: We know that young people are not as engaged with politics. They just don’t trust politicians, and it’s linked to the rise of social media. Celebrities have more pull, and followers, than [British Prime Minister] Theresa May or [leader of the Labour Party] Jeremy Corbyn will ever have. I’m not in a position to say whether people should be more interested in X or Y. Certain things in life make people feel good. As humans we seek out things that get us high, aroused, excited –  or we seek out things which tranquilise and numb us. Celebrities tend to give us a thrill. 

Metro: Are celebrities vulnerable themselves?

MG: I certainly wouldn’t like to be in a position where cameras are waiting outside my house. Stardom can bring positive things, but also a lot of unexpected negatives too. We have to remember at the end of the day that celebrities are just human beings, with all the same emotional foibles and weaknesses we have – and sometimes they’re magnified times a hundred because of the pressure and stress of the spotlight. And the internet, too. It’s no wonder some of them fall prey to serious addictions. 

Metro: People like Amy Winehouse? She’s the most recent example I can think of.

MG: Before she died, Amy Winehouse had got to that stage where she was very famous, and she was earning a lot of money. And that meant she was surrounded by sycophants and ‘yes’ people. Those kinds of people say things they think you want to hear, and they’re not necessarily looking out for you. Amy was surrounded by people thinking about their own wages and careers. No, it’s not a surprise when these things happen, and people could see it coming. Like with Kurt Cobain’s death. Amy didn’t get the help she needed. We can say that in hindsight.’

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, 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

Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Does ‘Celebrity Worship Syndrome’ really exist? Huffington Post, November 18. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dr-mark-griffiths/does-celebrity-worship-sy_b_13012170.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.

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

A poor sense of rumour: A brief look at ‘addiction to gossip’

On Tuesday morning this week I was on my way into work and I picked up a copy of the Metro newspaper and on page five the headline was [Tory MP Michael] “Gove is addicted to gossip”. Obviously the article piqued my interest because of the word “addicted” in the title of the article and I decided there and then that I would write a blog on the topic. I ought to add that even before researching the topic, I did not expect to find any empirical evidence of anyone being genuinely addicted to gossip.

According to the Wikipedia entry, “gossip is idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others…The term is sometimes used to specifically refer to the spreading of ‘dirt’ and misinformation as (for example) through excited discussion of scandals”. I suppose all of us have engaged in gossiping, and now in the age of social media there’s probably a lot of you reading this who do it on a daily basis. Because of the social media, sharing gossip has become faster and more widespread. Rumours about celebrities can be spread online extremely fast. There is a fair amount of research into the psychology of gossip both in everyday life and of its effect in the workplace. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, Dr. Robin Dunbar has noted in his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language that it is a form of social grooming that helps social bonding among large groups of people and that language evolved for gossip to occur.

Unsurprisingly I couldn’t find any academic research that’s been carried out into gossip as an addiction although I did locate a number of online articles on the topic written by both journalists and psychologists. And there’s no shortage of diagnostic quizzes and tips on how to stop gossiping (for instance, you can visit the ‘Are you addicted to gossip?’ webpage and answer the questions, read advice on ‘How to End a Celebrity Gossip Addiction or look at the ‘6 Steps to Stop Gossiping + Why It Matters webpage).

Although I didn’t locate any empirical research on addiction to gossip, the concept did make a fleeting appearance in a few academic book chapters I read. For instance, in a 2008 book chapter entitled ‘Consuming gossip’, Dr. Vissia Ita Yulianto looked at the discourses that women use to justify gossiping. Yulianto noted:

One important finding from my discussions with female viewers is that, when asked if celebrity gossip shows contain messages, they remark that it gives them information about celebrities. They consider ‘gossip’ to be ‘information’. This may be because they felt the need to rationalize their addiction to gossip, and to legitimatize it by referring to it as a source of ‘information’.”

Here, Yulianto uncritically assumes her participants have an “addiction to gossip” although she would no doubt argue she is using the word ‘addiction’ in a metaphorical sense rather than from a psychological and/or clinical perspective. In another book chapter, Dr. Andrea Timár, a literary studies scholar examining the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and mentions (in passing) that the “craving for gossip is ever-demanding”. These few simple words include both a well-known symptom of addiction (i.e., ‘craving’) as well as describing a feature of addiction (i.e., ‘ever-demanding’).

One of the more interesting articles I read was by Kiran Relangi on the Purple Room Healing website. He claims that gossip is the “ugly addiction” and that it is a “repeated and ritualistic abuse of knowledge and of our own personalities. Gossip turns us from polite conversation makers into rumour-thirsty vampires scandalizing private lives for personal satisfaction”. Relango does appear to see gossip as something addictive and that “like any addiction, we only gossip because we do not want to be reminded of our insecurities, failures and voids within. By engaging in gossip we not only divert our minds from introspection, we also create such falsehoods that will make us feel better and safe”. He then lists what he sees as the four different functions for gossip in our lives (including ‘gossip as an addiction’). These four reasons are taken verbatim from his article:

  • Gossip as a defence mechanism: It feels good to ‘prove’ another human is much inferior to us. That feeling creates a temporary and partial amnesia for our own shortcomings and insecurities. Instead of dealing with our own ugliness we create even uglier pictures of others around so we can feel better.
  • Gossip as an emotional vent: The persons we gossip about quickly become our vents. Whenever we are upset about anything, we find ourselves engaging vehement and slanderous gossip smearing somebody’s image with shit in our lives.
  • Gossip for conversation: Talk ill of a commonly disliked person so we can bond closer to fellow gossipers. Any bond built on gossip is likely to sever because of gossip.
  • Gossip as an addiction: Count how many times a week you engage yourself in ‘discussing’ affairs of a third person. You may feel you have control over what you speak and how much you speak. But strangely you never feel motivated to stop speaking. That’s an addiction. Gossip as an addiction is a ‘sweet’ cover for our failures and the ugliness we carry within”.

An online article (‘Are you addicted to gossip?’) on the Inner Self website by Dr. Richard Michael goes as far to say that gossip is the world’s favorite pastime. He asserts:

“How and why has the world become so addicted to gossip? The reason is that those that gossip and who listen to gossip do not view themselves as being important, but they do view others as being important…The problem with listening to gossip is that you do not just listen to it with your ears or see it with your eyes, you hear and see it with your heart, and that eventually wounds the heart. The heart becomes wounded because you have temporarily filled an empty space within it with someone other than yourself and your own individual importance. Therefore, you have filled that space with words and sights that you heard, read, and saw about others. This leads to a longing to learn more about this person, much like an addiction”.

In an article entitled ‘Addiction to gossip’ by Dr. Margaret Paul, she responds an ‘agony aunt’ type way to a man writing about his “unhappy” mother who uses talking about other people’s problems as a way of socially bonding with her. In this situation, Dr. Paul responds by saying the mother is likely using her addiction to gossip as a way of connecting with her son and avoiding her own emptiness and aloneness that is the result of her self-abandonment”. In response to another woman who cannot work out why she and her friends constantly (and “harshly”) judge other people that they know, Dr. Paul responds by saying “it feels good to our ego wounded self to feel like we are one up to these people, and it gives us something to connect about”. She then goes on to claim that:

“Gossip is like any other addiction – it is a way of avoiding responsibility for your feelings, and can be used by the wounded self as a way to connects with others. The wounded self has numerous ways of trying to connect with others other than being truly authentic and caring, such as drinking together, smoking pot together, ridiculing others together, or even using things like food to get a sense of closeness without having to be authentic. Gossip is another one of the ways the wounded self tries to connect and get filled up externally when you are abandoning yourself”.

Another online article I came across was a hypnosis site claiming that ‘gossip addiction’ can be treated. I don’t doubt that constantly gossiping can sometimes result in negative detrimental effects for the individual but that does not mean it is an addiction. The site spells out how gossip addicts can be helped: 

“If your mouth sometimes runs away with you and you hurt others (or yourself) by your gossiping, spilling the beans and divulging other people’s secrets – then this ‘Stop Gossiping’ session is for you…Gossip can seem harmless. A certain amount of sharing of information can be a way of bonding people together in groups…The trouble is that gossip spreads. Sometimes faster than wildfire. And because the story doing the rounds can get distorted…when it finally gets back to the one who was being talked about it can seem malicious. Even if the originator had no such intention. So even so-called ‘harmless gossip’ can ruin reputations – not just the reputation of the subject of the gossip, but your reputation too, if you were the one who started the gossip, or helped to spread it…It’s as if gossiping has become an addiction – as if you just can’t get enough of it…Using potent imagery to speak to your deepest self, ‘Stop Gossiping’ will help you enter a transformative state where you can untangle yourself from the short term buzz of gossiping”

Although I have argued that it is theoretically possible to become addicted to anything if there are constant rewards and reinforcements, I have yet to come across anything (even anecdotal) to suggest that anyone has ever been addicted to gossip.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Drexler, P. (2014). Why we love to gossip. Psychology Today, August 12. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-gender-ourselves/201408/why-we-love-gossip

Dunbar, R. (1998). Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Engle, G. (2015). The psychology of gossip: Why talking sh*t makes you happy. Elite Daily, March 20. Located at: http://elitedaily.com/life/culture/gossip-born-to-talk-sht/972434/

Ludden, D. (2015). Why you were born to gossip. Psychology Today, February 27. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-apes/201502/why-you-were-born-gossip

Michael, R.C. (1998). Are you addicted to gossip? Inner Self. Located at: http://innerself.com/content/creating-realities/4116-addicted-to-gossip.html

Paul, M. (2010). Addiction to gossip. Mental Health Matters, November 9. Located at: http://mental-health-matters.com/addiction-to-gossip/

Relangi, K. (2012). Gossip, the ugly addiction. Purple Room Healing, June 12. Located at: https://deadmanswill.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/gossip-the-ugly-addiction/

Tiger, R. (2015). Celebrity gossip blogs and the interactive construction of addiction. New Media & Society, 17(3), 340-355.

Wikipedia (2016). Gossip. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gossip

Yulianto, V.I. (2008). Consuming gossip: A re-domestication of Indonesian women. In Heryanto, A. (Ed.). Popular Culture in Indonesia: Fluid Identities in Post-Authoritarian Politics (pp.130-142). New York: Routledge.