The mysterious thrill of living other people's lives

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 March, 2003, 12:00am

Hong Kong in the morning is a city festooned in double-page spreads, a territory more richly swagged in tabloid gossip and gore than any place on earth. The population just cannot seem to get enough of their celebrities and the unfortunates who achieve 15 minutes of unintentional fame through wacky or tragic means.

What is the psychology behind this lust for gossip? And what is it like to be the target of so much public attention? Being a fan has its benefits, say psychologists. Fame too. But on the whole, it is probably better for your health to be a fan than a star.

One reason for this city's many tabloids may be the relatively high value Hong Kong Chinese place on hierarchy and on finding ways to show identification with peers by, for instance, conforming to how others dress, eat, educate their children, travel and so on.

Worldwide, people who take an interest in celebrities get a bad press. Subjects in a study conducted in Britain and the United States thought of fans as irresponsible, foolish and submissive. Some researchers who investigated the lure of gossip started with the idea that people take an interest in celebrities to compensate in some way for what is missing in their own personal relationships. Psychologists call this attachment to famous people a para-social bond.

Researchers discovered that there is indeed a link - though a very weak one - between how socially anxious a person feels at a particular time and how strong their para-social relationship is with a celebrity. Socially anxious people may take an interest in a well-known person, for example, specifically because this can reduce everyday tensions in their lives. Perhaps focusing attention on a celebrity has just this effect during the socially turbulent years of adolescence.

Being a fan has its benefits, confirms Dr Sandy Wolfson of the University of Northumbria. In fact, one of the reasons fame exists is precisely because it serves a social purpose. Contrary to widespread opinion, fans are typically well-balanced and mature, Dr Wolfson concludes.

So what is it like to be famous? Acclaim frequently brings many painful and destructive consequences, as the sensationalist press reports regularly. Studies have confirmed that famous people, for example, suffer far more frequently from alcohol-related problems. Because famous people have life so good, however, tabloid readers may feel at liberty to take secret delight in their occasional falls from grace - which may be another reason why tabloids are so popular.

Other people's relentless gaze stimulates high levels of self-awareness in celebrities. It is this constant scrutiny and attention that increase the chances of addiction and suicide among the famous, concluded researcher Alain Morin and colleagues at Canada's Saint Francis Xavier University.

Because of other people's attention, self-focus tends to be more intense and unrelenting. The 'ideal' self of a star is disproportionately defined by others and set artificially high. It is much harder for a celebrity to modify his 'real' self, too, because so many other people have a stake in it.

Drugs and alcohol interfere with the cognitive processes underlying self-awareness. In other words, they dampen the self-focus that has become so painful.

So, as attractive as being a star may seem, remaining a fan - simply indulging in a scan of the tabloids over a dim sum breakfast - may be far healthier.

Jean Nicol is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and writer