Homo Consumericus: I’m Not a Doctor, But…

Driven by narcissism and surrounded by yes-men, celebrities think they can cure the world’s ills.

By Gad Saad Ph.D., published November 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The narcissism and grandiosity displayed by celebrities have always fascinated me. Jenny McCarthy is bewildered that the National Institutes of Health is not paying attention to her "proof" that autism is caused by the MMR vaccine. Apparently, it is due to a large conspiracy in part driven by the evil pharmaceutical firms (no doubt, Dr. Evil is the CEO of the conspiratorial consortium). Tom Cruise castigated psychiatry for being pure quackery, as he had "studied its history." The actors Kirk Cameron, Ben Stein, and Mel Gibson have each "disproved" the theory of evolution. The problem has gotten so out of hand that there is now an organization, Sense About Science, that seeks to combat such celebrity-driven idiocy. Salon and Newsweek did the unthinkable by each publishing an article on the contribution of Oprah to this lunacy. How dare anyone question Oprah's omniscience and omnipotence?

I'd like to speculate about five possible reasons that drive celebrities to engage in such nonsense.

First, celebrities are a self-selected group of narcissists. Whereas it is certainly true that some individuals pursue acting or singing careers for the pure love of the artistic forms in question, the great majority of celebrity-wannabes are driven largely by the outcomes (fame, money, adulation). A 2006 study by S. Mark Young and Drew Pinsky published in the Journal of Research in Personality (yes, the Drew Pinsky of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew) supports the contention that celebrities as a group are narcissists.

Second, the extraordinary attention that is lavished on celebrities (not to mention the outlandish sums of money) makes it easy to succumb to one's hype. People line up for hours to get a glimpse of Tom Cruise coming out of his limousine, and will scream with a visceral religious fervor at his mere sight. Take a narcissist, and feed his or her ego in such a manner 24 hours a day, and it is not difficult to guess that Tom Cruise starts to actually believe that he is a superhero (rather than playing one in the movies).

Third, celebrities are seldom exposed to negative feedback from those closest to them. Hence, their immediate environments serve as lubricants for their outlandish narcissism. This is one of the key drivers of the overconfidence bias.

For example, many professors imagine that their teaching evaluations in a given semester will be stellar precisely because they hear only from those students who compliment them face-to-face. However, those who think that the professor performed poorly in the classroom are likely to wait until the evaluations to voice their negative opinions. The asymmetry of being exposed to positive, and not negative, feedback creates the overconfidence bias in the professor's mind.

This is exactly what happens with celebrities. They are repeatedly provided with positive feedback regarding their "laudable" scientific interventions, reinforcing their grandiose idiocy. Negative feedback, as difficult as it might be to share, serves a crucial role in guiding behavior. Failure to receive any such feedback ensures that celebrities will maintain their grandiosity.

Existential guilt is a fourth factor behind this form of celebrity narcissism. You may have heard of survival guilt—the intense feelings of remorse that survivors of a terrible ordeal, be it a plane crash, a disease, an earthquake, war, a terrorist attack, or a concentration camp, might experience. A survivor might think: "Why did I cheat death when so many others died? What is so special about me that my life was spared?"

I propose a similar mechanism to explain celebrities' interventions in making a better world. I believe that they suffer from a form of existential guilt. They know in the deep recesses of their minds that they are not deserving of the accolades and the privileged lives that they lead. One way they can assuage this persistent guilt is to demonstrate to the world that they are much more than "mere celebrities." Hence, they "cure" mental illness; they "eradicate" autism; they "neutralize" radiation; and they "disprove" evolutionary theory!

Some of you might have noticed a possible contradiction here: If celebrities are narcissists why would they experience existential guilt? I think that some celebrities are perhaps slightly less narcissistic and hence maintain some elements of self-insight. Think Sean Penn (tortured artist) versus Paris Hilton (oblivious narcissist).

Finally, a fifth reason that drives celebrity drivel is the pseudo-intellectual movement known as postmodernism, the most virulent of anti-science dogma, which proposes that all viewpoints are welcome and none is privileged. Reality is relative. This creates a democratization of opinions. It is apparently "arrogant" to think that psychiatrists, physicists, evolutionary scientists, and epidemiologists might know more about their areas of expertise than, say, Oprah, Jenny McCarthy, Madonna, or Kirk Cameron.

To sum up, celebrities possess narcissistic predispositions (nature), these being subsequently reinforced by a wide range of environmental realities (nurture), rendering it next-to-impossible to slay the Narcissism Dragon.

Incidentally, whereas I have focused on celebrities' "contributions" to scientific debates, I should mention that their expertise is apparently unlimited and spans endless other domains of human import.

For example, Mike Farrell, Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Jane Fonda, and Martin Sheen (among countless other celebrities) have repeatedly explained to us that there is an alternative to war and it is rooted in the highly "actionable" mantra "give peace a chance."

One thing that is unequivocally clear about human history is that it is paved with bloodshed, irrespective of cultural setting and historical epoch. Apparently, had the perpetrators of all of these wars only known about this alternate "peace" option as espoused by these enlightened celebrities, we could have all been singing John Lennon's "Imagine" while holding hands as one happy human race.

Most celebrities have at best graduated from high school. Hence, it is quite extraordinary that they should feel sufficiently knowledgeable to contribute to complex issues in physics, psychiatry, medicine, and biology. Here is a thought: Entertain us at the movies and in concert halls, and leave the science for scientists.

Celebrities might wish to take heed of a famous quote by Confucius: "When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." If celebrities prefer to receive directives from other actors rather than dead Chinese philosophers, perhaps they can heed the advice offered by Amanda Peet, an actress and advocate of child vaccination who is reported to have said, "I'm not an expert and I'm here to tell you do not listen to actors, do not listen to celebrities...." Now that's what I call sound celebrity advice.

Gad Saad is a PT blogger. Read his blog Homo Consumericus.

Take It From Me; I'm a Celebrity

Did you know that celebrities hold the keys to living longer?

  • Suzanne Somers hails her hormone therapy replacement program as an elixir of youth.
  • Gwyneth Paltrow has warned that shampoo causes cancer in children, who can't "metabolize [its] toxins."
  • Demi Moore uses "Leech Detoxification Therapy" to maintain a youthful and healthy glow.
  • Madonna has claimed that she has used "Kabbalah fluid" to neutralize radiation at a Ukrainian lake.