There is a widespread fear that our obsession with celebrities is making us dumber. And yes, it's fair to say spending quality time with the Kardashians is not a brain-boosting exercise.
But occasionally, our tendency to virtually befriend people we've never met does pay dividends. Exhibit A: Angelina Jolie's decision to go public with her decision to have a double mastectomy in May 2013.
The well-known film actress and director revealed that she carries a defective gene, putting her at a high risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer. (She had her ovaries removed earlier this year.) This was international news, which—at least in Britain—led to a huge increase in the number of women undergoing genetic testing to see if they faced a similar threat.
Meanwhile, in Austria, a research team saw a real opportunity in her announcement. In March 2013, two weeks before her announcement, researchers polled 1,000 women about their experience with breast cancer, and their knowledge of its treatment.
The results suggest massive media coverage of a celebrity's health condition and treatment options "can serve as a tipping point for raising awareness and improving knowledge concerning a specific disease."
Curious to see if all the news coverage had made a difference, the researchers, led by Dr. David Lumenta of the Medical University of Graz, repeated the poll (with two added questions) in June, again collecting answers from 1,000 Austrian women.
Awareness of some basic facts went up only slightly. "Do you know that it is possible to reconstruct the breast(s)?" was answered affirmatively by 88.9 percent of women in the first poll, and 92.6 percent in the second, post-Jolie poll.
Similarly, "Do you know that breast reconstruction is possible by the use of silicone implants?" received a "yes" answer from 87.4 percent of the women in March, and 89.9 percent in June.
But answers to other questions suggested women were paying attention to the detailed medical information that was incorporated into the Jolie coverage. "Do you know that breast reconstruction is possible by the use of your body's own tissue?" was answered affirmatively by only 57.8 percent of women in March—a figure that shot up to 68.9 percent in June.
Likewise, "Do you know that in the case of surgical removal of the affected breast, it is possible to simultaneously reconstruct the breast in the same operative session?" was answered "yes" by 40.5 percent of women in March, and 59.5 percent in June.
Clearly, the Jolie coverage conveyed important medical information spelling out breast cancer patients' options, which many readers and viewers paid attention to and absorbed.
For the second poll, the researchers added two questions. Just over 20 percent of women answered "yes" to the inquiry, "Has the related media coverage made you deal more intensively with the topic of breast cancer?"
Asked what approach they would "generally prefer" if they underwent re-construction of a breast, 62 percent answered "your body's own tissue," while only 8.2 percent answered "implants." Another 25.8 percent said they didn't know.
It seems likely that this predilection is also media-driven, at least in part, as there have been many stories over the years about problems with silicone breast implants. It would have been interesting to see if those numbers changed after Jolie later revealed she opted for such implants.
In any event, the results suggest massive media coverage of a celebrity's health condition and treatment options "can serve as a tipping point for raising awareness and improving knowledge concerning a specific disease," the researchers conclude.
It appears that a significant number of people who skip over the health section of the newspaper will read and absorb such information if it's part of their celebrity-news diet.
So Angelina Jolie is officially a triple-threat talent: Actor, director, and health educator.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.