Friday, June 20, 2008

Celebrities, Self-Esteem, and Nietzsche

Aristotle said that humans are political animals, that is, we are social by nature. We are not atoms, but require interaction. There's an interesting article coming out in the journal Personal Relationships on the way those who suffer from low self-esteem benefit from relationships that don't actually exist.

For many people, the admiration of celebrities can have some important benefits. Jaye L. Derrick and Shira Gabriel of the University at Buffalo, State University of New York illustrate how parasocial relationships can provide a safe route for people who have a difficult time with real interpersonal relationships. People with low self-esteem can use their parasocial relationships to feel closer to the ideals they hold for themselves.

Researchers conducted three studies using approximately one hundred undergraduate university students each to examine the relationship between self-esteem, parasocial relationship closeness, and self-discrepancies. Participants identified their favorite celebrity and described that celebrity in an open-ended essay. The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale assessed global self-evaluations.

Results showed that people with low self-esteem saw their favorite celebrities as very similar to their ideal selves. Low self-esteem people primed with their favorite celebrity felt more similar to their ideal selves than low self-esteem people primed with a control celebrity. Also, people with low self-esteem primed with their favorite celebrity felt more similar to their ideal selves than low self-esteem people primed with a close relationship partner.

The current research demonstrates that parasocial relationships can have self-enhancing benefits for low self-esteem people that they do not receive in real relationships. These parasocial relationships, which have very low risk of rejection, offer low self-esteem people an opportunity to reduce their self-discrepancies and feel closer to their ideal selves.

“Even ‘fake’ relationships with celebrities, relationships without any actual contact, can have benefits for the self,” the authors conclude. “We found that parasocial relationships can sometimes have benefits for people with low-self esteem that ‘real’ relationships do not.”
We do use celebrities as ideal selves. That's why I found it so interesting years ago when basketball player Charles Barkley, not noted for his decorum and well-mannered way, declared unilaterally that he was not a role model. The fact is, that is not for him to decide.

We use celebrities to personify what we as a culture deem virtuous, whether that be beauty, strength, artistic talent, or rebellious spirit. On the one hand, as Nietzsche argued in On the Use and Abuse of History, it is good to have great figures who stand as markers for how far humanity can go, who give us something to aspire to, and who force us to revise upward our image of ourselves individually and as a whole. On the other hand, it is utterly unfair to those who end up as celebrities to have to live up that role -- I believe it was that unfairness that Barkley was chafing at. Further, those who excel at some endeavor generally do so at the expense of other parts. Great individuals are often lousy humans.

At the same time, celebrities today are by in large created by those with monetary interest shopping for "the next big thing" in order to cash in as they are elevated by society for their virtues. Focus groups are used to shape images that will catch on with the masses, that titillate and appeal to our baser desires. This would undermine what Nietzsche saw as the value of celebrities -- they give us something to gawk at, not something to emulate and transcend. Does this mean we are harming the character of those with low self-esteem who turn to these celebrities as role models?

Of course, one with low self-esteem would look to others to validate them -- that is the nature of having low self-esteem. The celebrities are popular and that in and of itself surely is part of what makes the association esteem-building, by being a devotee of something very popular makes you part of the movement and thereby normal. Celebrities are not used to create high water marks in the development of humanity, but to dictate the direction of the herd. There is no doubt that we should be glad that those who suffer from low self-esteem have this means of normalizing their lives, but at the same time we should also be concerned about having surrendered the power to define that which normalizes us to profiteers.

What celebrities say the most about us as a culture? What celebrities give us the most hope for progressing as a culture and which are the most worrisome?