With the Royal Wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton later this week, many people have become enthralled with soaking up every piece of news about the nuptials and purchasing official Royal Wedding Memorabilia. Yet as a social psychologist and someone who does not spend my free time reading checkout-line tabloids, I find myself asking "Why?"
William and Kate: Celebrities' lives are important narratives
Of course, everyone loves good entertainment, stories, and life narratives. Even cynics who scoff at purchasing an Us Magazine at the airport enjoy watching Othello's attempts to discover whether his wife is having extramarital sexual relations with Cassio. Even among the snooty, stories about adulterous movie stars on TMZ.com are abominations but sexual infidelity in Shakespeare is engrossing.
The focus on people such as William and Kate is really not much different than general celebrity worshipping. People enjoy stories about love, divorce, having babies, dealing with death in one's family, professional success, and plastic surgery gone awry. Through the ages, we have sought life narratives out in many ways: authors, thespians, actors, and musicians. Royalty, it seems, is just another brand of the social panoply.
And William and Kate make for a great story. William is second in line to the throne of the UK, served in the Royal Air Force, and is engaged to a beautiful woman named Kate who is a good photographer and is one of the best-dressed women in the world. The couple met in college, dated, broke up, rekindled, and became engaged last year. They will have a cozy wedding in front of 2000 people in a charming London abbey that has been the site of 38 royal coronations during the past millennium, including William the Conqueror back in 1066. What a tale!
How can we relate to people so different from us?
Ironically, it's a story that few can relate to in their own lives. Yet, that's also part of its compelling nature. Social psychology research indicates that we typically reflect on our own lives through comparisons to others. This social comparison process is automatic and very common, and these comparisons have important consequences for our emotional reactions. When one compares the self to worse-off others, one can feel better even in bad circumstances. For instance, people suffering from the recent floods in the Midwest "feel fortunate" when they compare themselves to others who have suffered far worst natural disasters (e.g., the tsunami in Japan).
When we compare ourselves to those who are better off, also known as upward social comparison, we typically feel worse. A student who gets Bs in his college classes will feel worse about himself when he compares himself to his sister who got all As in the same semester.
This raises an interesting question. Shouldn't people reflecting on Kate and William lead them to feel worse instead of better? That is, this is a couple with tremendous physical beauty, that people everywhere adore, and will probably someday assume control of a national trust of over $17-Billion Pound Sterling. Shouldn't such upward comparisons hurt rather than be the topic of intrigue?
Interestingly, it probably won't. Although the hypothetical student above will feel bad about his B college grades in light of his sister getting As, not all upward comparisons are the same. For example, upward comparisons to close others on important dimensions tend to hurt (e.g., sibling rivalries), but comparisons to distant others on dimensions that don't align with our own skills directly tend not to hurt. In fact, we can bask in the glow of their success, their beauty, and their story by associating ourselves with them.
William and Kate watching: Symbolic association
It is here where I think the analysis gets even more interesting. It is understandable why people in England might care about the Royal Wedding, but why would 1 Billion people watch the spectacle worldwide on television? For the majority of these viewers, William and Kate will never be their sovereigns.
Yet, people find all sorts of ways to symbolically associate themselves with the Royals. People can play up their Anglo roots. People can reflect on how US history is intertwined with UK history (from King George III to fighting side-by-side in wartime). And yes, people can buy Official Wedding Tankards (mugs to us commoners) for the very reasonable price of $54 (saucer not included). Buying trinkets provides a symbolic connection to William and Kate in the same way that wearing a New York Yankees jersey provides a fan with a connection to the Bronx Bombers long after moving to San Diego.
Watching William and Kate may make people feel less lonely
Finally, I thought I would close with one more observation. People may find social comfort in watching William and Kate on television. Indeed, there is social psychology research showing that lonely people can quell their sense of social isolation by watching television.
In investigating this social surrogacy hypothesis, researchers have shown that one's favorite television characters can stave off loneliness resulting from a social rejection experience. This research by Shira Gabriel and her colleagues reveals that one's favorite television programs can improve self-esteem and one's mood. Thus, it's not surprising that many people who are enthralled with William and Kate's wedding may also spend a considerable amount of time watching soap operas and reality TV shows -- these characters can fill social needs, and real people may be even more powerful than fictional characters (aka, "Based on a true story").
Overall, the Royal Wedding appears to provide us with the same fairy tale narratives that make dreams of Disney Princess breakfasts so appealing to little girls visiting the Magic Kingdom. Yet, beyond just providing an interesting story about love and hope, it seems that our interest in William and Kate is as much a story about ourselves as anything else.