Why are we so interested in celebrities?
I love a good date. One of my favorite of all time is Mark Twain: “If I wrote this long letter, it was because I did not have time to make it shorter,” he once told a friend.
It is a wonderful irony that I have repeated to my friends and colleagues. Typical of Twain, you could say. Only it is not. I was recently told that the real author of the quotation is a lesser-known French thinker, named Blaise Pascal, who wrote the phrase in a letter to a friend in 1657. I looked for it and confirmed that it was true.
And that’s not the only date I’ve been abusing.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with Einstein’s brilliant refrain: “The definition of madness is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result.” It’s probably the most famous thing he said, after the formula “E = mc2”.
But there is no record that it was he who pronounced these words. The first time the phrase appeared printed was in 1981, in a brochure of Narcotics Anonymous, about 25 years after his death. And there are many more similar examples.
Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King probably have said less than half of the things they think. Appointments become important when they come from people who have become famous for their wit and wisdom.
Attributing quotes incorrectly exemplifies our tendency to give too much credit to celebrities.
Fame is a powerful cultural magnet. As hypersocial species we acquire most of our knowledge, ideas and skills by copying others, through trial and error. However, much more attention is paid to the habits and behavior of celebrities than to those of ordinary members of our community.
That is why it is very likely that something will become popular if it is associated with a known person for one reason or another, even if the association is wrong, as in the case of Twain and Einstein. This raises the question of whether what is said is as important as who said it.
Another example of how the characters act as cultural magnets is that we often copy features that have little or nothing to do with what made them successful in the first place: the clothes they wear, their hairstyles, how they talk, etc. That’s basically the reason why companies look for stars to sponsor their products. Celebrities are always on television and in the media. Getting them to wear a watch or jeans brand is a great promotion.
But it is not just about putting products in view of the public. There is no way of knowing-when watching television images or newspaper photos-what kind of underwear David Beckham wears, what George Clooney drinks coffee, or what perfume does Beyoncé wear. Companies look for celebrities to advertise this type of product because they know that our perception of value is actively influenced by fame. The support of celebrities not only makes the products more visible, but also more desirable.
Why does this happen? The culture of celebrity is often portrayed as something relatively new, the product of a society saturated by the media. Although I agree that the culture of celebrity has been shaped by the modern world, the truth is that it has its roots in the most basic human instincts, which have played a key role in the acquisition of culture and have been crucial for the evolutionary success of our species.