Like millions of others, Jaye Derrick closely followed the Jennifer Aniston-Brad Pitt breakup. "I didn't actually buy any magazines," she said, referring to the tabloids that featured the couple on the cover, "but I read them in the grocery line."
This habit of latching onto the personal lives of the famous is widely derided as a sad attempt by lonely people to make up for the lack of intimacy in their own lives. But Derrick sees it differently. Her research suggests these "parasocial relationships" — that is, a "relationship" where the other person doesn't know you exist — can actually be a positive influence, especially for people with low self-esteem.
"There is an assumption that celebrity worship is a bad thing," she said. "We wanted to show that, in some situations, it's not."
A research psychologist at the University of Buffalo, Derrick describes her recent studies of celebrity worship and self-esteem in the June issue of Personal Relationships. Her work is based on what might be called the positive reflection factor.
"Previous research has shown that people can feel closer to their ideal self if they are in a long-term relationship with someone who views them positively and reinforces all the good aspects of themselves," she said. "There is also some research showing when you're with your creative friends, you feel more creative, and when you're with your athletic friends, you feel more athletic. There are different parts of yourself that are more obvious to you around certain people."
In other words, we find ourselves attracted to people who display positive traits we wish we had — and in doing so, we begin to access those traits. That's a natural, healthy process, but there is a catch: The process only works with people who have reasonably high self-esteem.
"Low self-esteem people are more worried about rejection in their close relationships," Derrick explained. "They don't believe their partner sees them as positively as they actually do. So they have a harder time feeling close to other people and taking on those traits."
With parasocial relationships, the likelihood of rejection is virtually nil (unless you let your subscription to People magazine lapse). Derrick hypothesized that, thanks to that inherent safety net, otherwise insecure people would be able to let down their guard, connect with the celebrity's positive attributes and thereby feel closer to their ideal selves.
To test this idea, participants with low self-esteem were asked to write for several minutes about their favorite celebrity, a "control" celebrity (the apparently unavoidable Regis Philbin), or a close friend or lover. They were then asked to assess how close they felt to their ideal selves.
Those who wrote about their favorite celebrity "reported significantly more similarity between their actual and ideal selves" than those in the other groups," Derrick reported. In other words, they accessed their inner Anistons.
Derrick is quick to note she is not a clinician and is not making any treatment recommendations based on her findings. (It will be some time before you can write off your subscription to the National Enquirer as a mental-health expense.) But her research raises several interesting questions.
She notes that "if your favorite celebrity is this very smart person, and your ideal self is to be a smart person, when you think about this celebrity, you feel smarter." But is this simply an internal perception, or does it have a basis in reality?
"There isn't any evidence of that with celebrities," she said. "But a paper by one of my co-authors, Shira Gabriel, shows for that people who are comfortable being close to other people, when they think about a friend, they become more like that friend. For example, if one of your best friends is really smart, and you think about that person, you do better in a Scattergories-type game."
Further research will show whether that dynamic also applies to parasocial relationships.
But what if people are attracted to famous people who are inappropriate role models? In a survey released this spring, British teachers expressed alarm that their so many of students are modeling themselves after questionable celebrities, such as Paris Hilton.
"I think part of the reason she is so popular is because she has this glamorous lifestyle, which people — or at least young girls — want," Derrick said. "If she's your favorite celebrity and you're thinking about her, maybe you feel more glamorous."
Derrick is quick to add that isn't necessarily a positive thing, noting that some people's visions of their ideal self are disturbingly shallow. "If your ideals for yourself aren't that high, (the association with these celebrities who represent them) might not be as positive," she said.
She added that not all celebrity attachments follow this model. Some people undoubtedly track certain trouble-prone stars, such as Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan, to see what problems they have gotten themselves into this week. "Something different (psychologically) is happening in those cases," she said.
Derrick isn't entirely sure why she was drawn to news of the Aniston-Pitt breakup, although she thinks of the actress in positive terms. "I watched the television show Friends, and Jennifer Aniston seemed sweet," she said. "I always thought she was probably smarter than she appeared on the show.
"Of course, people tend to attribute as many positive qualities as they can to people they like but don't really know."
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