By guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski
Celebrities are people famous for being famous. Have you ever given any thought to how it happens that pop-culture figures become so well-known, even when they have risen to the top upon a wave of interest for which there was not the slightest rational explanation? What is the real root cause of our lemming-like rush to keep tabs on insignificant but famous people? What leads us to share this information on social media? Why do we visit gossip portals and read tabloids, even though they’re totally worthless to us? Partial answers to these questions are given by a trio of researchers via a series of creative experiments that they’ve reported in Psychology of Popular Media Culture.
Most of us are afraid of being excluded or ignored. The ability to detect and avoid ostracism likely developed for evolutionary reasons – as humans, remaining in groups enhances our survival. Often, even when the experience of ostracism seems trivial or rationally beneficial, we experience negative consequences. Nicole Iannone at Radford University and her colleagues concluded that the feeling of being “out of the loop” on popular culture may produce similar psychological consequences as partial ostracism – especially less “need satisfaction” (that is, less satisfaction of the four fundamental needs of belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence, and control), reduced competence, and more negative moods.
The researchers asked American undergrad participants in a first experiment to view photographs of musicians who they were told are in the news at the moment and that most people in pilot research had recognised. In fact, some were chosen to be highly familiar (like Justin Bieber) and others less so (like Ellie Goulding). Viewing musicians that were supposedly very famous, but whom the participants did not recognise, led them to report less need satisfaction and a slight increase in negative mood.
A second experiment confirmed these results using a larger sample of students and pictures of actors. In a third experiment the researchers went one step further, finding similar psychological effects for failing to recognise supposedly famous pop culture logos, even among those participants who said pop culture isn’t important. This is surprising considering that people who supposedly don’t care about popular culture should not feel bad when they are unfamiliar with it.
A final study replicated the previous results using a subtler method. The researchers simply asked students to indicate their pop culture preferences using Buzzfeed-style quizzes. Critically, some of the participants were quizzed about highly familiar celebrities and pop topics (movies, books, TV shows etc.) whereas others were quizzed about more obscure people and topics. A control group rated buildings. Even though there was no explicit mention of other people’s familiarity with the quiz items, those participants in the unfamiliar pop culture condition experienced an effect of being more out of the loop, including lower need satisfaction, and more negative mood (in contrast, those in the familiar pop culture condition did not experience a boost to need satisfaction compared with controls). These effects occurred regardless of participants’ beliefs about the importance of pop culture.
The results of these experiments suggest it is highly probable that our participation in pop culture is not due to its attractiveness, but rather the desire to avoid the negative emotions associated with the feeling of being out of the loop – at least among university-age people.
What is most striking is the fact that we do this even when declaring our indifference to pop culture. Our evolved sensitivity to ostracism protects us from social exclusion by directing our behaviours at a lemming-like rush towards shallow pop culture, which very few of us even care about. Perhaps the effects described here explain the shallowness of that culture. After all, it’s enough for us to be familiar with celebrity icons, to have heard about people famous for being famous. We can’t necessarily be bothered with what they have to offer us, and for sure, hearing about them won’t improve our mood.
Post written by Dr Tomasz Witkowski for the BPS Research Digest. Tomasz is a psychologist and science writer who specialises in debunking pseudoscience in the field of psychology, psychotherapy and diagnosis. He has published over a dozen books, dozens of scientific papers and over 100 popular articles (some of them in Skeptical Inquirer). In 2016 his latest book Psychology Led Astray: Cargo Cult in Science and Therapy was published by BrownWalker Press. He blogs at https://forbiddenpsychology.wordpress.com/.