After spending much of the past two weeks in Southern California visiting friends and seeing local as well as national coverage of Michael Jackson's death, I was struck by why so many fans came out of the woodwork expressing grief and sadness about Jackson's passing. I'm not talking about the hard-core fans, but rather, the everyday people who really seemed to "suddenly care" about "The King of Pop." Although suggesting any single factor explains most people is absurd, I had some observations about what the social psychology of the self would say about the sudden connection people expressed in the aftermath of Jackson's death.
1) Basking in Reflected Glory (BIRGing)
People often can derive self-esteem from others. Whether it's a Chicago Cubs fan adorned in a Cubs hat and uniform despite living in San Diego or a Yale college graduate wearing a residential college t-shirt nearly 20 years after graduation on a lazy weekend in suburban Seattle, people can symbolically associate themselves with positive entities. Sure, the Yalie may have graduated from Trumbull College in 1991, but in all likelihood, the Cubs fan didn't actually play for the baseball team (and perhaps, never even lived in the Windy City). Yet, despite the tenuousness of the connection, research shows that people Bask in Reflected Glory (BIRG) and enjoy the benefits of symbolically linking the self with another.
A number of studies in the BIRG research literature have shown that following college sports victories, students are more likely to wear university-related clothing and apparel than following losses. Perhaps even more impressive, following wins, students are more likely to use first-person plural constructions to describe the game (e.g., "we won the game," "we played great") instead of third-person constructions, which are more frequently reserved for losses (e.g., "they played terrible," "their defense never showed up at the game").
With Michael Jackson, I was struck by how many people waiting in line at the Staples Center in LA to attend Jackson's memorial were adorned in many of Jackson's trademark items (e.g., military-style suits, hats, trademark silver gloves). Through their attire, fans were linking themselves with Jackson and connecting themselves with the positivity associated with him. In particular, I noticed that fans were linking themselves with the Jackson of the glory years (e.g., the Thriller album) and not the Jackson associated with more troubling times. Because BIRGing is symbolic, it's not surprising that people reflected on the most positive facets of Jackson and his life.
2) Death = The ultimate scarcity
People love rarity. Whether it's owning a one-of-a-kind baseball card or a rare orchid, people find value in things that are scarce. Indeed, it's not surprising that while watching any home shopping network channel on TV, the audience is told that "it's a limited time offer" for "a truly unique item" as the words "act now" flash on the screen next to the timer showing that one only has a few moments left to purchase the item.
In some ways, recognizing the power of scarcity can help to explain the question "Why care about Jackson NOW?" Again, I'm not surprised that his dyed-in-the-wool fans would be so concern about Jackson's death, but now with Jackson's death, there will be no more Jackson concerts or albums (DVDs of past concerts and Greatest Hits compilations excluded). So suddenly, Jackson's death imposes scarcity, and accordingly, people see greater value in celebrating him.
3) Death = Anxiety about one's own mortality
Dying at the age of 50, Jackson made a lot of people born in the 1950s and 60s think, "wow, how much longer do I have left on this planet?" Although the official account of Jackson's death has yet to be provided, the death of someone who was relatively young can certainly make one reflect on their own mortality.
Related to this is a young but sizable literature on Terror Management Theory, which is a perspective that argues that reflecting on one's own death produces psychological terror (i.e., one's limited existence produces existential angst), which encourages people to seek out ways to buffer against their anxiety by clinging to cultural beliefs that help insulate people from death or at least buffer their self-esteem. For example, people who are asked to consider their own death show an increased interest in everything from the US flag to having sex.
Thus, Jackson's death probably led many 40 and 50-somethings to reflect on their own limited tenure on Earth, encouraging them to bolster self-esteem and to seek connections to the greater culture to buffer them from their existential anxiety. As a result, watching the ubiquitous coverage of his death on TV and surfing the internet for Jackson-related news stories would be one response, providing some sense of greater culture connection for a person who recently has reflected on their self's own demise.
4) The inescapable gravity of nostalgia
Last week, I was struck by watching a work crew repairing sidewalks and curbs while listening to Jackson's music at the job site. As someone who is in his 40s and grew up listening to Thriller in high school, I recognized the songs quite well. It was clear that these men and women were connecting to their past and bathing in the nostalgia of their younger days.
When thinking about this in relation to Jackson, I was reminded of the discontinuity hypothesis, which proposes that people rely on nostalgia to protect their sense of self, especially during times of uncertainty and change. It is the latter part of this principle that I found intriguing, especially given the current state of the world (e.g., economic uncertainty, rogue states such as Iran and North Korea threatening peace and stability). Although nostalgia can operate even in the best of times (e.g., some people who attend high school reunions actually are happily married and gainfully employed), nostalgia is especially attractive when people feel uncertain and anxious. Thus, today's troubling times serve to heighten the appeal of celebrating someone like Jackson and waxing nostalgic about more halcyon days.
I should note that the above list is by no means exhaustive. However, I did find a lot of value in thinking about how BIRGing, death as scarcity, death as existential terror, and nostalgia were being evidenced, especially by people who weren't huge Jackson fans. In many ways, this isn't really a blog about Jackson per se, but rather about how people seek ways to extend their sense of self to others in the service of connection and self-worth. Civic pride, high school reunions, sports teams, and even political party affiliations can serve these roles as well. Like most things psychological, many of these processes work invisibly until some event like Jackson's death puts them in stark relief.