April 9, 2014, by Yvonne Teoh

Life of the Rich & Famous: The Psychology of Celebrity Worship

Channel E!, JustJared.com, US Magazine, TMZ, People Magazine, the list is endless, the obsession with celebrities is everywhere, it has become a part of our lives. “Did you see the dress Sarah Jessica Parker wore to the red carpet last weekend?” “Did you see what JLaw did at the Oscars last night?”

The lives of the rich and famous have become a common topic of discussion no matter where one goes. So much so that, psychologists have begun to investigate the relationships we have with the stars. In 2002, Dr McCutcheon and her colleagues coined the term “Celebrity Worship” which can be defined as a psychological phenomenon that describes a type of one-sided relationship (aka parasocial relationship) that can possibly lead to an unhealthy addiction. In other words, celebrity worship usually begins with a harmless behaviour such as reading or learning about a public figure, to the extreme end of the scale where one becomes completely immersed with the details of the personal life of the public figure, and may even empathise with the celebrity’s successes and failures.

So, why are we so fascinated by celebrities? Why do we fixate on these public figures?

The reasons seem obvious at most times, celebrities have success, wealth, and looks. These qualities naturally attract individuals because we look up to those who have succeeded in society, in order for us to emulate them. There is a tendency for us to believe that successful individuals have “above-average methods” that we do not possess, hence by “worshiping” them we are then able to learn their way to success. In addition, social psychologists believe that one of the reasons why we are so fascinated with celebrities is because we are searching for an identity, hence previous studies found that adolescents tend to develop the habit of worshiping celebrities.

Furthermore, humans are social beings who crave for interactions with others, and with the accessibility of information these days through media and the internet, individuals are able to learn about celebrities’ personal lives and form illusory relationships causing them to empathise with the celebrities.  Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the topic of celebrities have become a part of everyday conversation, that it even helps individuals to extend their social network with others who like a particular celebrity. In addition, for a long time humans have the tendency to talk about the people they knew in common, starting from relatives to neighbours, and in today’s society, celebrities have become the people we all know in common, they become the people we are familiar with. Hence, it is only natural that public figures become one of the most discussed topics.

However, perhaps the darker side of celebrity worship is that this behaviour is similar to that of an addict whereby “celebrity worshipers appear to need to endorse increasingly more intense or extreme attitudes and act out increasingly more intense or extreme behaviours in order to continue to feel connected to their favourite celebrity… or get a ‘high’ from celebrities,” said James Hournan, a clinical psychologist.

There are also several factors that affect our fascination and obsession with celebrities. Personality type being one of them.  Past research has found that egocentric individuals or those with traits such as impulsivity and moodiness are more susceptible to celebrity worship. Another factor is religion where it was found that the less religious one is, the more likely he/she will worship celebrities. Lastly, the psychological condition of the individual can also impact the vulnerability of being obsessed with celebrities. For instance, previous studies have found that the parasocial relationships with celebrities could help individuals with low self-esteem to view themselves more positively. Also, individuals who feel disconnected from society or experienced a disturbance in their identities are more prone to worshiping their favourite movie star or singer.

So, is it acceptable for us to constantly be updated about our favourite celebrities? Or has this obsession that we all share become a nuisance?


Yvonne Teoh
(PhD Student, School of Psychology, UNMC)

Posted in behaviourblogevolutionary psychologymental healthnewspsychobabblepsychologyresearchsocial psychologyunmc