A psychological look at “idol” worship

The universal interest and devotion generated by Fox Network’s ‘American Idol’ never ceases to amaze me. There is no doubting the allure of the built-in interpersonal hullabaloo between Simon, Paula and the rest. Or our fascination with the nationally televised mockery of certain contestants—some specifically picked for both their lack of talent and their tragic ignorance of that fact. In truth, it’s not much different than the gladiators and tigers in the Coliseum of ancient Rome, except without all the nasty cleanup.

These positive aspects of the show notwithstanding, there has to be something else that draws countless millions to their TV sets every week. There are other personalities on other shows who are just as dynamic. And the bizarre escapades of some other reality shows can’t be denied. So what is it that sets ‘Idol’ apart?

Well, in keeping with my gladiator/tiger analogy, I suspect that a major factor in the show’s popularity is the nationwide voting process that occurs in the final elimination phase (sort of an electronic version of ‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down’). I believe that we all share a fascination with being a part of something ‘bigger than we are.’ Like the unquestioning loyalty so many people lavish on their favorite sports team, it’s my observation that many of us humans have a need to feel that we are a part of the ‘mainstream,’ and, as with sports, to congratulate and applaud ourselves when the ‘majority’ agrees with our own choices.

When our favorite football team prevails at the Super Bowl, ‘we’ are the ones who won. ‘Idol’ enthusiasts feel vindicated when a contestant for whom they voted actually wins the national poll—and indignant when their favorite is voted off. But, in both cases, we actually contributed nothing more to the process than our presence in front of the TV, the consumption of a nacho or two, and maybe a phone call or text message. The key with ‘American Idol,’ of course, is that the viewers ultimately decide the winner, which is not the case in a sports event. This extra sense of power over the outcome might explain why ‘Idol’s’ massive popularity, at least for right now, is more widespread than a major league sports franchise could ever hope to be.

As a psychotherapist, it has been my experience that a lot of people don’t feel a strong sense of accomplishment or control in their lives. Maybe they don’t like their jobs. Maybe they resent their bosses. Perhaps they feel like victims of their disappointed expectations, or of the people around them. Voting for the winners and losers in a contest (that, at the rate we’re going, is on its way to eclipsing the turnout for the Presidential elections), gives many people a much hungered-for sense of control—control that is lacking in other parts of their lives. Of course, I’m not suggesting that everyone who loves ‘American Idol’ feels out of control, but I do believe that, for one reason or another, many do, and this accounts for much of the show’s popularity.

There’s still another unique aspect to ‘American Idol’ not present on other reality shows. You’ve probably already guessed that I’m talking about Simon Cowell, the prickly, critical (and very clever) judge everyone loves to hate. I don’t watch the show regularly, but in talking to others who do (virtually everyone I meet), there’s usually a subtle, yet strong admiration for this man. If that admiration could speak, it would say something like, ‘He’s a little harsh. But he’s usually right, and he’s willing to speak his mind. I like him for that.’ This makes me think of something else you don’t see much of in today’s society: People willing to speak their minds and exercise judgments. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all make judgments inside our minds. It’s part of how we survive. Yet, in today’s age of ‘political correctness,’ few want to say anything strong about anyone or anything. There’s always that knee-jerk terror of offending someone, even if you are careful to form your conclusions thoughtfully. Dear old Simon comes across as unflinchingly honest, direct and, while maybe too blunt for most, at least stands in stunning contrast to the predictable mealy-mouthed figures in our leadership and media today.

Much has been written about the lack of heroes in today’s society. There are plenty of things to appall and shock us: terrorism, child abuse, political corruption; not to mention the wretched aftermath of natural disasters. Yet, with ‘American Idol,’ for one blissful hour every week, the viewer is able to experience a greater sense of having someone or something to root FOR—with the added bonus of feeling that they have control over the outcome.Combined with the appeal of being a part of the group, you have a very powerful psychological combination. It’s really no surprise that, according to a recent poll by Washington-based Pursuant Inc., 35 percent of “Idol” voters believe that their vote counts “as much as or more” than their vote for president. So, if we are truly searching for heroes to admire, does that speak well for “Idol’s” credibility, or poorly for our nation’s electoral choices? I fear both.