The Psychology of Fame

On studying the experience of fame and the perception of fame with psychological theories

Fame as we know is public recognition or renown and one’s reputation in the world. Fame is associated with our needs for power, status, recognition and our needs of achievement. The need for fame could be of various types and would be triggered or associated with different motives of doing greater social good, reaching high levels of achievement in one’s career, leaving one’s work and ideas for posterity, being productive or making money.

Celebrities as who are in showbiz or entertainment may have varied motives for seeking fame and these would be related to providing genuine entertainment to people as doing social good or simply as urge to act, sing or prove their talents, or they could be motivated to make money. Entertainers and actors or musicians are motivated by fame as it relates to social recognition and social status and love needs. Politicians on the other hand have directly public rather than personal reasons for their fame and this is related to doing social good and serving the public as well as reaching a point in their career that would indicate higher achievements. Politicians or social leaders are motivated by fame as it relates to social power, reputation and power or status needs. Writers, philosophers, scientists and intellectuals are however primarily motivated by fame as a need to keep something for posterity, and to use their creativity, to do something exalted and go beyond human limitations of existence. Intellectuals, philosophers and sometimes scientists are motivated by fame as it relates to immortality and intellectual or creative leadership although they also have social recognition needs and social status, power and sometimes material needs. Although generally writers and intellectuals are less motivated by their basic needs of love and security and more motivated by needs of self realization and sublimation through creativity, intellectuals may at times crave love, recognition and even power. In case of geniuses and enlightened intellectuals like Einstein, Buddha or Newton, fame needs are primarily a need to establish intellectual superiority and leave knowledge and enlightenment for the future generations.

Freud has explained needs of recognition with sex drives as high sex drives would also mean a genuine striving towards achievement. Aggressive, competitive personalities or simply high sexual individuals would have stronger achievement, recognition, power needs and the genius according to Freud is constantly guided by a need to sublimate the sexual desires through creative output. Fame needs in the genius is thus only covert rather than overt and fame is seen as reward for other types of behaviour and more overt needs such as creative pursuit.

So the creative genius is one who is completely addicted and caught into the process of creativity and in many cases, is unable to lead a normal life and fame happens either in his lifetime or posthumously mainly as a reward. This reward in lifetime then reinforces further creative achievement and a positive cycle ensures lasting fame of genius, immortalizing them or their contributions. The psychology of fame is thus explained in two ways – the experience of fame and the perception of fame. Fame can have two perspectives suggesting what are the motives of fame in individuals and also highlighting how fame affects people who are not famous or how fame is perceived by others. Fame as experienced by the celebrity writer or actor, scientist, musician or artist could be thus explained with Maslow’s theory of needs, as such individuals are driven by needs of love and status or self realization.

Fame is also explained with Erikson’s stages of human psychosocial development as individuals strive for status, power, recognition during late adulthood and middle age as these years bring generativity and are significant in establishing one’s lasting influence in the world. Sex drive as the basis for fame or recognition through achievement is also studied in Freudian analysis. Fame as experienced is distinct from fame as perceived as the individuals who are not famous look up to famous individuals as role models.

Theories explaining narcissistic behavior would suggest that generally individuals who see or project themselves in the celebrities or famous people or can relate to them in a specific way would show envy, awe or admiration towards these public figures. Generally youngsters become fan of young celebrities and older people are admirers of older celebrities and age seems to be a major factor in this relationship. Narcissism suggests that since we love ourselves we would admire those celebrities or famous individuals who resemble us in some way, possibly in terms of intellect or tastes, in age, looks, mannerisms or background.

Thus a German Jewish physicist working in quantum theory and settled in America might find that he has a lot common with Einstein and could admire Einstein not only because of his achievements but also because of his background and life history. Then the question remains why are some people more famous than others and why do some reach the level of immortalized fame even in their lifetime? For example in recent history Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi have all found unprecedented fame and iconic status in their homeland and worldwide. The reason for this is their inherent ability to relate to the people in some way and people could also connect to them even from a distance. Maybe it is in their words, their behavior, their ideology, their dynamism and energy, they have the ability to connect with all.

Geniuses can immediately attract people left and right, they attract all sorts of men and women and this power of attracting people is the strength of genius and this is solely responsible for genuine fame, rather than hyped celebrity culture which is more based on superficial media attention and sexualisation of women and even men. The celebrity culture is a modern phenomenon and is not just superficial but even marks temporary fad rather than lasting contribution of individuals in the fields of art, science, literature or culture. However fame when it relates to genius or men and women of exceptional talent and ability, would be lasting and is able to influence many people.

Apart from narcissism, fame perception is explained with psychoanalytic defense mechanisms of projection and identification. We project our own wishes on others and when we find other people fulfilling needs that are our own, we feel happy, For example if you have a deep wish to dance exceptionally well, when Michael Jackson performed in his shows or albums, you may have felt ecstatic as you projected your wish of dancing on him which he was fulfilling. You perceive Michael Jackson as famous because he could dance and could successfully flaunt his talents. So your wishes become a part of a famous person and you begin identifying with such people as if they are a part of you. Similarly if you are female and want to look beautiful, you may see pictures of young Liz Taylor or Marilyn Monroe as ideal representations of beauty and when you cannot become them or cannot look like them, you become admirers of them.

Thus you perceive them as famous because they are beautiful. Thus we see experiencing fame is more about fulfilling our needs of power and recognition of love and status and also our basic life or sex drives. Perception of fame on the other hand is about using defense, and about projecting our needs, or identifying with famous people through narcissism and other responses and there would be envy or admiration when fame is perceived. Not all of us perceive fame and react to it and although perception of fame almost always involves some form of subtle connection or admiration or even hatred or discomfort, the reactions to such perception may not always be very predictable or simplified. For example a scientist or an academic may be apparently indifferent towards Hollywood actors but once he perceives or engages in their life events or celebrity status, he might find the fame discordant for his level of thinking and intellect and return to his indifference.

The psychology of fame is thus about studying the experiences of the famous people and the underlying principles that could explain these experiences of fame and reasons for the fame; yet it is also about perception of fame and studying how and why fame is perceived in a certain way by most people and what are the underlying dynamics involved.

Reflections in Psychology – Part I – by Saberi Roy (2009)

Reflections in Psychology – Part II – Saberi Roy (2010)


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