Psychological Populism

Q: Dr. Hurd, why do so many people become fascinated with the plight of others, especially celebrities? For example, there’s Britney Spears. Or the actor from “Brokeback Mountain” who may have killed himself?

A: I don’t know that most people are fascinated by these stories, nor even that they have time to be. I’m aware of these stories, and you are too. How much time do you spend reading and thinking about them? If you’re like me and I suspect like most people, very little. Who has the time? The issue here is that 24/7 news and media outlets have space to fill. Unless there’s 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, there are not a lot of opportunities to fill that space. Noteworthy events and tragedies fill the space. It’s not that most people are fixated on these events all day long. But millions certainly do give a passing thought to them as they go through their day. Evidently this makes money for the providers of these media outlets.

The other factor is that tragedy gets people’s minds off their own troubles, or even their average everyday stress. Some even gain a perverse pleasure knowing that others who are successful and “privileged” are suffering or meeting tragic ends. Still others find that their sense of life as fundamentally unrewarding and even tragic is verified by these circumstances. Overlooked, of course, is the fact that most celebrities, just like most non-celebrities, do at least OK and don’t meet with tragic ends. I suppose you might call this attitude a “psychological populism.” It’s a belief that the most accomplished should have an equal amount of trouble as the “average Joe.” It’s really silly and irrational to think this way. Most celebrities are not to be envied, and I suspect most of them are even more confused and conflicted about all the stupid ideas in the world as is the average Joe. If you find more tragedy among the celebrated, rich and famous, then it probably means they’re even more confused and conflicted than most people. The thing to remember is that people — famous or not — largely do all this to themselves.