Are We Worshipping Celebrities or Heroes?

The American historian and educator Daniel Boorstin once wrote, “Time makes heroes but dissolves celebrities.”

We have just experienced an historic presidential campaign of unprecedented proportions, our economy is in peril, our military struggles to fight two wars, and our health care system is facing impending collapse. With all of these pressing issues weighing on the hearts and minds of America’s families, what seems to be on the covers of every magazine and tabloid these days? Celebrity nonsense. Does anyone really care which teen-aged pop star will give birth next? Do we need to know every happening inside the birthday party of a power-couple’s toddler? Is the diet that worked for the soap opera star really going to work for anyone else?

As long as there have been people who pulled away from the proverbial pack, there have been people to follow them and idolize them. However, scientists have only recently defined the psychological phenomenon of “celebrity worship” as a type of parasocial relationship that can have unhealthy and addictive elements.

HollywoodMuch research has been conducted about who engages in celebrity worship and what drives the compulsion. Celebrity worship for purely entertainment purposes likely reflects an extraverted personality and is most likely a healthy past time for most people. This type of celebrity worship involves harmless behaviors such as reading and learning about a celebrity. Intense personal attitudes towards celebrities, however, reflect traits of neuroticism. The most extreme descriptions of celebrity worship exhibit borderline pathological behavior and traits of psychoticism. This type of celebrity worship may involve empathy with a celebrity’s failures and successes, obsessions with the details of a celebrity’s life, and over-identification with the celebrity.

One study of 372 participants examined celebrity worship, personality, coping style, general health, stress, positive and negative affect, and life satisfaction. The researchers concluded that celebrity worship is associated with poorer mental health, illustrated by characteristics of neuroticism and disengagement. Some studies have pointed out that people with poor mental health are more prone to extreme celebrity worship, while others conclude that depression, anxiety, and decreased self-esteem develop from unhealthy celebrity worship. Several studies have also demonstrated a connection between celebrity worship and drug and alcohol use, smoking, and eating disorders. Yet another study concluded that celebrity worship involves a psychological model based on absorption, which leads to delusions of actual relationships with celebrities, and addiction, which leads to a progressively stronger need to feel connected with the celebrity.

Celebrity worship is not all bad. Idolizing or admiring someone for their accomplishments, and then pushing yourself to excel in the same way are positive elements. But, are we worshipping celebrities for the sake of being famous, or are we worshipping true heroes? Interestingly, participants in one study had similar measures for both heroes and celebrities. True heroes are people like our military men and women, our police officers and firefighters, our teachers and paramedics, and our mothers and fathers. These are the men and women who will stand the test of time and truly leave their mark on the world, unlike the athletes, movie stars, and singers who will fade into obscurity. If we confuse heroes and celebrities, we deprive ourselves of real role models. We should admire those who are famous because they are great, not those who seem great because they are famous.


M DALTON, J SARGENT, M BEACH, L TITUSERNSTOFF, J GIBSON, M AHRENS, J TICKLE, T HEATHERTON (2003). Effect of viewing smoking in movies on adolescent smoking initiation: a cohort study The Lancet, 362 (9380), 281-285 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(03)13970-0

John Maltby, Liza Day, Lynn E. McCutcheon, Raphael Gillett, James Houran, Diane D. Ashe (2004). Personality and coping: A context for examining celebrity worship and mental health British Journal of Psychology, 95 (4), 411-428 DOI: 10.1348/0007126042369794


Lynn E. McCutcheon, Rense Lange, James Houran (2002). Conceptualization and measurement of celebrity worship British Journal of Psychology, 93 (1), 67-87 DOI: 10.1348/000712602162454

Adrian C. North, Victoria Bland, Nicky Ellis (2005). Distinguishing heroes from celebrities British Journal of Psychology, 96 (1), 39-52 DOI: 10.1348/000712604X15473

John Maltby, David C. Giles, Louise Barber, Lynn E. McCutcheon (2005). Intense-personal celebrity worship and body image: Evidence of a link among female adolescents British Journal of Health Psychology, 10 (1), 17-32 DOI: 10.1348/135910704X15257

  • Please substitute sports for celebrity, and tell me if there is any difference.

  • WB

    How does this apply to someone who seems to have re-focused obsessions over the years? First it was celebrities (actors and politicians), then movies, then a certain branch of the military, and now conservative politics?

  • Rich

    Kill all celebrities in one swoop by killing your television. It is WE that give them power by giving them any attention at all. Heroes that should be in front of our eyes and in our schools are the scientists, engineers, explorers, and everyday men and women who, through little acts of courage and kindness, make our society better. The Media is worthless garbage, and serves only to deprive you of self-esteem, and individual liberty through the cult of personality and mindless repetition.

  • Fascinating and I plan to quote from this in a feature about the amount of coverage that Katie Price and Peter Andre’s split is generating. This will appear at on 21/08/09

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  • Michael

    Kill all celebrities in one swoop by killing your television. It is WE that give them power by giving them any attention at all.

    Completely agree with your comment. We can roll our eyes and tut about the media’s vacuous obsession with celebrity non-entities, but the real culprit behind the rise of celebrity are the masses themselves. They are the ones who tune in to the endless reality shows, talent contests and Pop Idol clones.

    Marx was wrong. It is not religion, but celebrity and materialism that are the opium of the masses. He was also wrong in believing that the proletariat were the only ones who could save society. On the contrary, they are the ones who are slowly destroying it.

  • Alex

    While we have our eyes glued to our idols the enemies are conducting business as usual right under our noses. Think abiout it. Why is so much money dumped into sports, films, television, musicians? They are all distractions.

  • Alexa

    Younger kids obsessing over celebrities is somewhat understandable, but adults doing so means there’s definitely something wrong with the brain…

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Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.

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