Why We Worship Celebrities and How It Impacts Our Mental Health

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Celebrity worship is an extreme feeling of attachment to a celebrity. The most frequently used measure to identity celebrity worship is the Celebrity Attitude Scale, which suggests there are three levels of the phenomenon: entertainment-social, intense-personal, and borderline-pathological.

Celebrity worship has been criticized for pathologizing fans of celebrities.

Understanding the Concept of Celebrity Worship

The concept of parasocial relationships, a one-sided relationship between a viewer and a media persona, was introduced by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in 1956. These scholars observed that an increase in media such as radio shows and television had allowed consumers to develop the illusion of a relationship with figures they only knew through media.

In general, scholars agree that forming parasocial relationships with media figures is normal and psychologically healthy, however celebrity worship was conceived to explore the more problematic aspects of attachment to celebrities.

In 2002, in response to the growing interest and media coverage of celebrities and their private lives,  Lynn McCutcheon and colleagues proposed the concept of celebrity worship and the Celebrity Attitude Scale to measure it. They suggested that while it was normal for children and adolescents to become intensely interested in celebrities and to use them as role models, this "celebrity worship" should decrease with age.

Yet, the increase in information available about celebrities had caused some adults to engage in celebrity worship as well, which the researchers claimed could be dysfunctional and even, in the most extreme cases, pathological.

In the 20 years since it was initially proposed, celebrity worship has increasingly become the subject of research. Moreover, due to the introduction of social media such as Instagram and Twitter, people have more access to information about celebrities than ever, including posts and messages that appear to come directly from the celebrities themselves.

Celebrity Worship Has Increased

In accordance with this, Lynn McCutcheon and Mara Aruguete found that celebrity worship greatly increased between 2001 and 2021, a trajectory they observed makes further research into this phenomenon essential.

The Absorption-Addiction Model

In their initial discussion of the concept, McCutcheon and colleagues proposed the Absorption-Addiction Model of celebrity worship.

What Does This Model Claim?

The model posits that, although most people will seek out information about celebrities purely for entertainment, those who lack a solid personal identity or meaningful relationships will attempt to compensate for those issues by becoming absorbed by information about their favorite celebrity.

While this will help them solidify their identities and fulfill their social needs in the short term, the model suggests that, much like an addiction, these individuals will develop a tolerance for the absorption they feel, requiring them to go to greater extremes in pursuit of information about their favorite celebrity, sometimes leading to obsession and dysfunctional behaviors, such as stalking. Subsequent studies have found support for this model.

The Levels of Celebrity Worship

In keeping with the Absorption-Addiction Model, the Celebrity Attitude Scale includes three levels of celebrity worship:

  1. The entertainment-social level, the lowest level of celebrity worship, is comprised of people who are entertained by a celebrity and engage in social interaction, such as fan club participation, based on their interest in that celebrity.
  2. The intense-personal level of celebrity worship is made up of people who obsess about their favorite celebrity and become compulsive in their expressions of emotion related to that celebrity. Approximately 20% of research participants exhibit this level of celebrity worship.
  3. The borderline-pathological level, the highest level of celebrity worship, includes people who are unable to control their activities related to or fantasies about their favorite celebrity. Research has shown about 3% to 5% of study participants fall into this level of celebrity worship.

These levels are considered progressive such that those who reach the borderline-pathological level must pass through the entertainment-social and then the intense-personal levels of celebrity worship first.

As a result, although most celebrity worshippers never move past the entertainment-social level, according to McCutcheon and colleagues' conceptualization, anyone who falls into even this lowest level is potentially at risk for unhealthy behavior and eventually pathology.

Celebrity Worship and Its Impact on Mental Health

Numerous studies have shown that celebrity worship is correlated with poor mental health and maladaptive behaviors, however it's unclear if mental health issues precede celebrity worship or if celebrity worship somehow causes mental health issues.

Nonetheless, a review of the research on celebrity worship found a number of reasons to be concerned about celebrity worshippers.

People at the intense-personal level of celebrity worship score high for neuroticism and those at the borderline-pathological score high for psychoticism, reflecting a tendency toward poor mental health in both groups.

In support of this, celebrity worship is associated with poor psychological health, including anxiety and depression, as well as anxiety in intimate relationships. Meanwhile, the intense-personal and borderline-pathological levels of celebrity worship has been found to be related to obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

Studies have also shown that celebrity worship is associated with problematic eating behaviors and attitudes and that celebrity worshippers are more likely to feel positively about cosmetic surgery.

Criticisms of the Concept of Celebrity Worship

While celebrity worship has been widely studied, it's also been widely criticized. In particular, celebrity worship researchers have tended to use the terms "celebrity worshipper" and "fan" interchangeably, even though celebrity worship has never been rigorously defined in the scholarly literature.

Using the terms synonymously has led to the pathologization of fans, even though most people who are fans of celebrities don't exhibit mental health issues or unhealthy behaviors.

In order to correct this issue, media psychologist and fan researcher Gayle Stever attempted to tease out the two concepts by administering the Celebrity Attitude Scale to a sample of serious fans who had either written letters to celebrities, attended fan events with access to celebrities, joined and participated in fan club activities, or collected a great deal of memorabilia related to their favorite celebrity.

Surprisingly, the scale had only been administered to general populations prior to this investigation. The study found that not all fans were celebrity worshippers. In fact, the closest the participants came to being considered celebrity worshippers was on the entertainment-social level of celebrity worship, and even in that case, many did not meet the necessary criteria to be considered a celebrity worshipper.

Thus, despite the way it's been discussed in the research literature, this study indicates celebrity worshipper and fan should be considered different constructs, and that while being a celebrity worshipper can be psychologically problematic, in general, being a celebrity fan isn't.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Horton D, Wohl RR. Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a DistancePsychiatry. 1956;19(3):215-229. doi:10.1080/00332747.1956.11023049

  3. Brooks SK. FANatics: Systematic literature review of factors associated with celebrity worship, and suggested directions for future researchCurrent Psychology. 2018;40(2):864-886. doi:10.1007/s12144-018-9978-4

  4. McCutcheon LE, Aruguete MS. Is Celebrity Worship Increasing Over Time? Journal of Studies in Social Sciences and Humanities. 2021;7(1):66-75.

  5. Giles D, Maltby J. Praying at the Altar of the StarsPsychologist. 2006;19(2):82-85.

  6. Stever GS. Processes of Audience Involvement. In: Stever GS, Giles DC, Cohen JD, Myers ME. Understanding Media Psychology. 1st ed. New York: Routledge; 2021:183-204.

  7. Stever GS. Celebrity Worship: Critiquing a ConstructJ Appl Soc Psychol. 2011;41(6):1356-1370. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00765.x

By Cynthia Vinney, PhD
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.