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The Problem With Celebrity Worship

Can we tell the difference between reality and perception?

Key points

  • It is unfortunate that celebrities hold so much influence over our cultural conversations, especially those surrounding sex.
  • We may become so invested in our perceptions that we can’t even consider that they might not be reality.
  • We can easily become prey to any narcissist who comes along and overidentify with them due to the power of their status or expression.

At the end of the first episode of “And Just Like That,” the HBO Max revival of the popular “Sex and the City,” the character known as “Mr. Big” died of a heart attack after his 1,000th workout on a Peloton exercise machine.

Immediately afterward, Peleton’s stock fell like a rock, and fans of the program were shocked and angry as if this were a real event.

Source: Credit: Meinzahn

Fiction has always drawn on reality, and there have only been a few incidents of injuries or death associated with the Peleton, but the overreaction by investors and fans of the show and the Mr. Big character brought into focus my longstanding unease with our celebrity-worshipping culture. In that same month, the Grammy-winning singer Billie Eilish got a lot of media coverage when she declared on Howard Stern’s radio program, “I think it [porn] really destroyed my brain and I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn.”

As a sex therapist, I find it unfortunate that celebrities like Eilish hold so much influence over our cultural conversations, especially those surrounding sex. Comments like hers tend to feed the deep and unhealthy guilt we carry as a culture around anything related to sexuality. They reinforce harmful stereotypes and generalizations about sex, which has a vast array of expressions. The idea that watching porn can turn you into a porn addict or damage your brain shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Serious researchers such as neuroscientist Nicole Prause, PhD, have long been conducting scientific studies on how porn and sex affect the brain. By measuring various chemical and neurological responses, Prause’s work, for one, has shown that the brain’s response to addictive substances bears no resemblance whatsoever to what happens when watching porn. In other words, porn addiction is a myth. But Prause’s expert opinions have very little reach when compared to Howard Stern’s or Billie Eilish’s vast influence.

Confusing Celebrity With Expertise

Celebrity shouldn’t be confused with expertise, but it often is, and so the questions become, "What’s going on here? Why are so many of us willing to surrender to the opinions and pronouncements of celebrities? Why do we identify with and attribute to celebrities status and expertise that they don’t really have? Why do we overvalue and identify with them or even the fictional characters they portray?"

Bill Cosby

Take for instance the saga of Bill Cosby. The character he portrayed for many years on “The Cosby Show” was admired by millions of people. He became a trusted role model, with many people thinking that they wished they had a dad like him. But it took years before the more-than-30 women coming forward to accuse him of drugging and raping them finally demonstrated that how his fans perceived him was not reality. And there are many who still refuse to acknowledge the facts that sent him to prison. Because they believe in the person or even the character the celebrity portrayed, when that person gets taken down, it’s as if they are taking them down. So, it becomes about them, not just about the character.

We become so invested in our perception that we can’t even consider that it might not be reality.

Even the word “reality” becomes corrupted by simply labeling something, such as “reality shows” as these programs are fully scripted and reality is manipulated to make us believe that what is happening on the screen is real. Similarly, by simply calling something “fake news” over and over again, our perception becomes corrupted to the point that we are unable to grant validity even to obvious facts, and we hold fast to mistaken information.

Narcissism and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect was described in 1999, when David Dunning and Justin Kruger, a pair of psychologists at Cornell University, began researching the phenomenon of people with limited knowledge reaching mistaken conclusions and making regrettable errors because their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead of seeking others whose expertise could help cover their own blind spots, such as turning to a colleague or trusted friend for advice or constructive criticism, they can’t discern that their belief might be false. They lack the ability to step back and examine it themselves objectively. You might even call this laziness because they have not made the effort to determine if their beliefs are valid. When we fall prey to believing our own grasp of truth, or that of a celebrity we have identified with, we have in a sense circled the wagons to defend ourselves against anything that might challenge our sense of ourselves.

Mirror Neurons

If you’re not in the psychology field, you may never have heard of mirror neurons. These were the discovery of neurobiologists at the University of Parma, Italy, some 20 years ago. Mirror neurons are the neurological structures in our brain that fire off both when we perceive action and when we take it. In other words, when we witness someone doing something—say a batter who hits the baseball out of the ballpark—we can feel as though we ourselves did that. When a great quarterback perfectly throws a “hail Mary” pass to a teammate in the end zone, we jump off the couch where we’re eating popcorn and drinking beer and proclaim, “We did it! We’re number one!” We didn’t make the pass, but we’re so identified with “our team” that we feel “we” did it.

Many scientists think that mirror neurons might well be the basis for our ability to empathize with someone else and to build social and cultural bonds. It may also explain much about why we become so overidentified with some celebrity that we feel their successes or failures are our own.

Lifting the Veil of Narcissism

When we surrender our self-identification to someone else—to what they do or espouse or portray—as being reality, expertise, or strength of character, then we ourselves have become disempowered. When we allow our perceptions to become our reality without real self-examination and questioning our beliefs, we can easily become prey to any narcissist who comes along and overidentify with them due to the power of their status or expression. We, in turn, engage in the narcissism and believe that what we believe is more real than what our senses, logic, or someone else might tell us.

It is incumbent on us as individuals, therefore, to step back and examine ourselves objectively, what Dunning and Kruger called “metacognition.” This could go a long way to disentangle ourselves from the perils of celebrity worship.

More from Joe Kort, Ph.D.
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