The Personality Analyst

How Personality and Personal Intelligence Shape Our Lives

The Potential Upside of Commenting About Others

Are there any good reasons for commenting on a public figure?

In "The vindication of gossip," Aaron Ben Ze'ev of the University of Haifa argues that gossip is neither good or bad, but rather represents our interest in other people's lives. When commentators remark on a public figure's personality, it is similar in many ways to gossip. One similarity is that commentaries help satisfy our interest in the lives of public figures. 

Last week, I wrote about the possible negative aspects of commenting on the personalities of public figures. This week, I will focus on some potential positives. Many of these benefits, it seems to me, center on satisfying our interest about others. 

Some researchers regard interest as an emotional state. Surely it is a mental state of some kind: Just as we "are happy," and "feel happy," we "are interested" and "feel interested."  Moreover, interest has a unique facial expression associated with it, according to some.  The argument that interest may not be an emotion, leveled by Andrew Ortony of Northwestern University, is that interest is not necessarily either pleasant or unpleasant to feel. Either way, interest is important to psychological functioning.

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Paul Silvia of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and colleagues have argued that interest is an emotion that emerges when we encounter something that is incongruous, unexpected and complex that we believe we can cope with and understand to some degree. Interest in public figures, according to this conception, would arise when public figures behave in an unexpected way and we ask: "Why are they doing what they do?" and believe we have a chance of answering that question.

A person's interest in public figures seems likely to promote learning about them. According to Silvia and his colleagues:

"...interest promotes the growth of knowledge, competence, and expertise.... To use one example, research in reading shows that interesting texts promote the use of deeper text-processing strategies, longer engagement with the text, and ultimately better comprehension and memory..."

Commentary about public figures serves to satisfy our interest in others and while doing so promotes other functions such as policing others and promoting interpersonal learning.  For example, when commentators condemn a celebrity for tawdry behavior, it may encourage some onlookers to avoid similar acts.  Commentary on public figures also teaches people how others act and might act in the future — for example, that some politicians can switch loyalties from one party to another or that a celebrity with a drug problem might relapse even after treatment.

Interest can serve as a reasonable umbrella concept for why we are concerned with public figures. The psychologists Baumeister, Zhang and Vohs have argued that gossip (and, more generally, public commentary) allows for cultural learning of a general sort. Gossip and commentaries convey stories about people in the public eye. Discussing others and their actions teaches us both about the practical and moral aspects of life decisions. Learning about those around us by talking about other people begins in childhood, according to Gary Fine of Northwestern University. Through gossip, children become able to distinguish what is typical and atypical interpersonal conduct, they begin to appreciate how reputations are built (and sometimes harmed), and they learn both how to gossip themselves and how to respond to gossip with poise.

Commentaries about public figures that take into account psychological features teach us about the personalities of others, both in the sense of moral character, and in the sense of how personality operates and how people are similar and different from one another.

Knowledge of public figures may illustrate psychological processes and also introduce us to issues surrounding a special population. In a 2009 article, Professors Donna Rockwell and David C. Giles noted that:

"From reality TV, to MTV, to movie star governors and celebrity presidents, America is fascinated with fame. According to American Idol host, Simon Cowell..., 'There is a fame epidemic!'"

Public figures serve as role models to aspire to or to avoid. Generally speaking, public figures are perceived positively by the public. Many of them can be considered high-functioning individuals. As a group, public figures represent a unique population — albeit diverse in nature. Some celebrities sought their fame, others had celebrity thrust upon them. Public figures become public figures by a variety of means: by heroism or villainy; by accident, talent or hard work.

Certain celebrities such as wealthy politicians, businesspeople, sports figures and actors live in an environment of high socio-economic status, which can foster a sense of entitlement. Research by Rockwell and Giles indicates some of the unique challenges celebrities may face. Being famous means contending with the fickleness of fame itself, experiencing a loss of privacy, and being the focus of demanding expectations.  Flattery and attention can alter one's self-image and change one's conduct, sometimes in problematic ways. Fame is often difficult for friends and family to cope with and can lead to mistrust and isolation in certain instances.

There is much of interest in a public figure's life. The fact that commentary about a public figure is interesting, however, is not enough to ensure it is good in an ethical sense. A commentator who writes negatively about a public figure may achieve little more than creating another problem that the public figure must face. On the other hand, if a commentator analyzes and assesses a public figure's personality thoughtfully, the results might successfully and memorably convey useful information to the public. Such commentary might teach the public about different personalities, good decision-making and positive life choices. It might also promote an understanding of the special situations faced by celebrities and how being in the public eye can affect their behaviors and personalities. Commentaries that teach in these ways may be very worthwhile if done well.

Notes

Baumeister, R. F.; Zhang, L., Vohs, K. D. (2004). Gossip as Cultural learning. Review of General Psychology, Vol 8(2), Jun, 2004. pp. 111-121.

Fine, G. A. (1977). Social components of children's gossip. Journal of Communication, 27, 181-185.

Ortony, A., & Turner, T. J. (1990).  What's basic about basic emotions.  Psychological Review, 97, 315-331.

The quote, "From reality TV, to MTV," is from p. 206 of Rockwell, D. & Giles, D. C. (2009).  Being a celebrity: A phenomenology of fame. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 40, 178-210.

"Interest promotes the growth of knowledge..." from p. 1391 of Silvia, P. J., Henson, R. A., & Templin, J. L. (2009). Are the sources of interest the same for everyone? Using multilevel mixture models to explore individual differences in appraisal structures. Cognition and Emotion, 23, 1389-1406.

Copyright © 2011 by John D. Mayer

John D. Mayer is Professor of Psychology at the University of New Hampshire and the author of numerous scientific articles, books, and psychological tests.

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