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Why We Are Obsessed With Celebrities

The existential and social appeal of celebrities.

Tiger Woods had sex with a lot of women while married. So too have hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. But as my mom used to say, we do not care "two hills of beans" about that. So why the fascination with Tiger?

There are the obvious reasons. For instance, we know Tiger Woods' name; we have seen him on television, and on some level, we feel like we know him (to some extent). We have all watched him make a putt, and then give that wild fist pump in the air. Further, we know that Tiger will be talked about at our work, so we care too. We humans do enjoy chattering it up with fellow humans.

But beyond that, we all admire Tiger Woods' ability to golf. And the motherload of research shows that when people are amazing (or even good) in one area, this tends to transmit to perceptions in other areas (the "halo effect"). So as absurd as it sounds to me right now, we expect Tiger to be more moral, more intelligent, more whatever else that is good. And when this ability to see him as universally awesome is broken, we get a little annoyed, or even irrate.

Another interesting possibility derives from terror management theory. As I have written in past blogs, this theory starts with the assumption that people generally want to live for as long as possible. But they know they will die, and this is potentially very disturbing. So humans do the best they can; they ignore death and they overestimate their health and underestimate their risk for diseases etc. They also invest in meaning systems that will prevail after they die.

So yeah, death is a bummer and maybe even scares the living daylights out of a lot of us, but it sucks less if we will live on in some way post death, either symbolically through loved ones and our cultural beliefs, or through our spiritual beliefs.

So in other words, we love celebrities because they are an integral part of culture. They have made it in the worldview we are so entrenched in. By worshipping them (to an extent), we feel as if we are participating in this hugely important cause/belief system. And that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, and like our life matters (and in turn, death doesn't sting as much).

Doctoral student Spee Kosloff and his advisor, professor Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona, recently tested the effects of death salience on celebrity worship. In several studies, people were more positive towards celebrities and fame when they were first reminded of death. This suggests that people cope with the awareness they will die by loving themselves some fame and celebrity.

So when Tiger Woods has sex with various women, we lose faith in him. This key figure of our cultural worldview has broken a key element of our belief system; thou shall not cheat on their spouse.

On some level then, the sexual exploits of Tiger Woods make us more uncomfortable with our inevitable death.

More from Nathan A Heflick Ph.D.
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