I've been fascinated, and more than a little baffled, by the psychology of celebrity for years. Why are people attracted to celebrities?
After dinner with Pat Boone the other night several other restaurant patrons introduced themselves to Pat. And when they got home I'm sure they told their family and neighbors about their brush with fame. Strangely, they virtually ignored his wonderful wife Shirley.
Why do other people want to become celebrities? I worked with an author once who wanted his photo in every advertisement to increase his celebrity. He was thrilled whenever strangers recognized him in airports. I couldn't imagine why. How did he benefit if strangers whispered, "Look, there goes so and so..." as he passed their gate?
But recently, while studying the science of networks to understand their impact on marketing, I realized they may also explain the psychology of celebrity.
I'm sure you've heard that each of us is no more than six degrees of separation from anyone else on the planet. It's called the small-world phenomenon. It turns out that, not only is this true--and not just for Kevin Bacon--but the actual number is something less than six. Network structure and behavior make the small-world phenomenon possible.
Minimally, all networks contain nodes, links, and clusters. In a social network, every person is a node and every relationship is a link. Clusters are formed by groups of people who all know each other. For years people assumed our social links followed a "normal distribution." A normal distribution looks like a bell curve where the vast majority of people have about the same number of contacts while a few have slightly more or slightly less.
However, it turns out that human social connection actually follows a "power law distribution" where a tiny fraction of us are highly connected and the rest of us have relatively few social contacts. It's like the distribution of wealth in the United States. There is a handful of super rich with billions in assets, a modest middle class, and millions living paycheck to paycheck. What's more, just as wealthy individuals tend to attract more wealth, connected individuals attract more new social contacts. The rich get richer both monetarily and socially. Remember, people introduced themselves to Pat Boone at the restaurant, but not to his wife. Google rode this principle to search engine dominance. It assumes hubs are more valuable and organizes search results by prioritizing sites with the most links.
This makes highly connected nodes--or "hubs"--critically important to a network; more important than more pedestrian nodes. Hubs do a network's heavy lifting. The integrity of the network depends disproportionately on their contributions. When a snow storm closes a hub like O'Hare airport in Chicago, for example, it can disrupt travel across the entire country. Whereas a storm that closes The Gerald R. Ford airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan has few repercussions outside that node. And this brings me back to celebrities.
Celebrities are familiar strangers. We recognize their faces. We know their names. We may even know a little about their careers, their love life and, depending on which magazines we read, how they look on bad hair days or after they've been arrested for DUI, but we don't really know them. It only feels like we do. What we know with certainty, though, is that other people recognize them too and this makes celebrities seem highly connected. They aren't, necessarily, but they look like a hub. And hubs, remember, are disproportionately important to a network.
Could it be that we are born with an innate understanding of networks and the power law distributions they follow? Do our minds work like Google, subconsciously assigning greater value to hubs and prioritizing social contacts with more connections ahead of others? Do we do this even for those people who give the appearance of hubs? Could this explain our attraction to celebrities and some people's desire to become stars themselves? I think it's a question worth exploring further and I'd love to know your thoughts.
Spread the fire. GS