Can reading Perez Hilton reduce fear of death? Recent research (reported in PT) suggests that we identify with celebrities to boost a sense of our own immortality. The demi-gods: They're just like us!

According to "terror management theory," much of our anxieties and motivations emerge from an existential terror of the nothingness that comes after death. Dozens of studies show that activating thoughts of death (increasing "mortality salience"), even subconsciously, leads us to grasp for meaning and structure in the world by, say, identifying with and endorsing authorities or social groups or cultural mores that will survive our own demise. Because then a part of our essential self--our beliefs and values--will carry on in some form outside our worm-baiting bodies.

Pelin Kesebir and Chi-Yue Chiu at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who presented their research at the 2008 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, found that after people thought about their own deaths, their estimates of how long various living and dead celebrities would be remembered increased. And the magnitude of the increase for each famous person was related to how representative of American values people considered them. If you're preoccupied with leaving your mark on the world, and someone famous embodies your beliefs, you peg your legacy on his or her legacy.

In another study, people thought a plane was less likely to crash when it carried a celeb who represented their cultural values. And the more iconic the person, the greater his protective force on the plane, even after controlling for how much the subjects liked or respected the person. We unintentionally convince ourselves that symbols of our identity approach immortality not just figuratively but literally.

In a third study, also unpublished, subjects imagined an encounter with Oprah Winfrey (a figure Kesebir and Chiu dub "quasi-immortal") at a Chicago coffee shop. Those with death on the mind pictured the experience as being more pleasant than others did.

Is celebrity obsession unhealthy? "We all need these buffers," Kesebir says. "Famous people can serve as inspirational figures. They can provide the kind of existential stamina. They can show that you yourself can become immortal. So they're in a way what's best about a culture. They can serve as compasses. I don't think that's unhealthy."

Here are some of the data for the first study. It's nice to know that people value MLK and JFK over Britney. But wow, apparently Joan Baez is almost as forgettable as Paris Hilton.

Living famous people:

 Dead famous people:

About the Author

Matthew Hutson

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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