Oscar Fixation: Why Are We Obsessed With Celebrities?

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Admit it. Many of you Oscar viewers were more interested in what Jennifer Lopez was wearing than in whether the worthiest films actually took home the hardware. As a country we’re obsessed with celebrity, and the Oscars provide the ultimate fix.

But is our fascination with the famous a bad thing? Sometimes it can border on the absurd — Angelina Jolie’s leg now has its own Twitter account — but for the most part, it’s perfectly normal.

Humans are a social species, so it’s only natural that we’re interested in what those at the top of the social food chain are doing or wearing or saying. We’re looking to them for social cues. It makes evolutionary sense — and other primate species do it too. “There’s a few different reasons for that. One is just learning what high-status individuals do so you might more effectively become one, and two, it’s basically political. Knowing what is going on with high-status individuals, you’d be better able to navigate the social scene,” Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, told LiveScience’s Stephanie Pappas.

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As a phenomenon, celebrity worship may have started as an outgrowth of our natural interest in social heirarchy, but it’s ballooned into a national pastime — and a multibillion-dollar one at that — because of ubiquitous celebrity gossip sites and tabloid media.

Stars themselves are masters at playing up the public’s interest. By using interviews to deliver tantalizing bits of personal information and other social media like Twitter and Facebook to interact with their fans, celebrities stoke the “parasocial,” or one-sided, relationships their admirers have with them, reports Pappas.

As imaginary as these parasocial relationships may be, however, research suggests they may actually be helpful. In fact, a 2008 study by University of Buffalo researchers found that celebrity worship can improve self-esteem by allowing people — especially those who have self-esteem issues or fears of rejection that may keep them from developing close relationships in the real world — to enjoy a one-sided bond with a beloved star.

As Healthland’s Alice park reported, the study involved 348 undergraduate students who completed a self-esteem questionnaire and then wrote an open-ended essay about their favorite celebrity. Afterward, the participants completed the same self-esteem evaluation a second time. The results showed that students who initially scored lowest on the self-esteem scale scored much higher — almost as high as those who started out with the highest self-esteem scores — after writing about their celebri-crush.

“Because people form bonds in their mind with their favorite celebrities, they are able to assimilate the celebrity’s characteristics in themselves and feel better about themselves when they think about that celebrity,” researcher Shira Gabriel said.

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For people with social difficulties, parasocial relationships can provide much-needed social outlets. “If they weren’t going to be interacting with people otherwise, this makes them at least have a social relationship they didn’t have before,” Stuart Fischoff, an emeritus professor of media psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Pappas. “So it’s making the best out of a bad deal, psychologically.”

But while a little bit of Best Dressed list stargazing is perfectly normal, celebrity admiration has a dark side if taken too far — as stalking and debilitating obsession prove. Admiring Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian work is one thing, but thinking about her day and night and withdrawing from your regular life to feed your obsession is another. “We would never make the argument that these relationships can or should replace real relationships,” said Gabriel.