Fan Club Confessions: Teens underestimate influence of celebrity

Focuses on a study which examined the influence of celebrity idols in the behavior of teenagers. Inconsistency in the participants' responses; Celebrities who are named in the study.

By Courtney Bennett, published January 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Starstruck

Collecting posters of Bradd Pitt and scrapbooks about Princess Di may suggest more than empty celebrity crushes. While attachment to world-famous icons molds self-identity, a Canadian study found that starry-eyed 18-year-olds are hardpressed to acknowledge their influence.

Susan Boon, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Calgary, and doctoral candidate Christine Lomore asked more than 200 Canadian undergraduates about their attachment to celebrities. The 79 students who expressed strong feelings toward an idol were then asked how seriously they took the relationship, and whether they had ever tried to emulate that person by dressing or behaving like them.

Actors from Cary Grant to Tom Cruise topped the list, as did bold-faced names such as Barbra Streisand, Michael Jordan and Isaac Asimov.

Participants indicated that despite strong attractions to their idols, they were not inspired to change their own behavior based on these celebrities' lives or accomplishments.

But participants' responses to specific questions told a different story. A whopping 60 percent admitted that an idol had influenced their attitudes and personal values, including their work ethic and views on morality. And nearly half said that their idol inspired them to pursue activities including acting, sports, becoming a vegetarian or using marijuana.

Boon is not surprised by this inconsistency. "It's often hard to realize how much anyone influences us," she says. "We may also like to think that we develop our identity and sense of self rather than being influenced by others."

Interestingly, 85 percent of the celebrities cited were male. Indeed, only two men out of 72 selected female idols. Boon attributes this finding to fewer female role models in categories like televised professional sports. In addition, "Men often choose other men as mentors and heroes, while women tend to select guys they are attracted to" she explains.

The list was peppered with icons who are dead, including John Wayne, Jim Morrison and Albert Einstein. "Even if there's no possibility of interacting with an idol, celebrity attachments can still affect people's behavior and feelings about themselves," says Boon, who published the study in Human Communication Research.

Parents perennially worry about teens' obsession with idols, but Boon notes that relatively few celebrities cited can be deemed negative influences. A possible exception is actor River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose. "Perhaps" concludes Boon, "the perception that celebrity attachments are harmful needs reexamining."