The Fame Motive
Money and power are handy, but millions of ambitious people are after something other than the corner office or the beach house on St. Bart’s. They want to swivel necks, to light a flare in others’ eyes, to walk into a crowded room and feel the conversation stop. They are busy networking, auditioning, talking up their latest project — a screenplay, a memoir, a new reality show — to satisfy a desire so obvious it is all but invisible.
“To be noticed, to be wanted, to be loved, to walk into a place and have others care about what you’re doing, even what you had for lunch that day: that’s what people want, in my opinion,” said Kaysar Ridha, 26, of Irvine, Calif., a recent favorite of fans of the popular CBS reality series “Big Brother.” “It’s strange and twisted, because when that attention does come, the irony is you want more privacy.”
For most of its existence, the field of psychology has ignored fame as a primary motivator of human behavior: it was considered too shallow, too culturally variable, too often mingled with other motives to be taken seriously. But in recent years, a small number of social scientists have begun to study and think about fame in a different way, ranking it with other goals, measuring its psychological effects, characterizing its devoted seekers.
People with an overriding desire to be widely known to strangers are different from those who primarily covet wealth and influence. Their fame-seeking behavior appears rooted in a desire for social acceptance, a longing for the existential reassurance promised by wide renown.
These yearnings can become more acute in life’s later years, as the opportunities for fame dwindle, “but the motive never dies, and when we realize we’re not going to make it in this lifetime, we find some other route: posthumous fame,” said Orville Gilbert Brim, a psychologist who is completing a book called “The Fame Motive.” The book is based on data he has gathered and analyzed, with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
“It’s like belief in the afterlife in medieval communities, where people couldn’t wait to die and go on to better life,” Dr. Brim said. “That’s how strong it is.”
The urge to achieve social distinction is evident worldwide, even among people for whom prominence is neither accessible nor desirable. In rural Hindu villages in India, for instance, widows are expected to be perpetual mourners, austere in their habits, appetites and dress; even so, they often jockey for position, said Richard A. Shweder, an anthropologist in the department of comparative human development at the University of Chicago.
“Many compete for who is most pure,” Dr. Shweder said. “They say, ‘I don’t eat fish, I don’t eat eggs, I don’t even walk into someone’s house who has eaten meat.’ It’s a natural kind of social comparison.”
In media-rich urban centers, the drive to stand out tends to be more oriented toward celebrity, and its hold on people appears similar across diverse cultures.
Surveys in Chinese and German cities have found that about 30 percent of adults report regularly daydreaming about being famous, and more than 40 percent expect to enjoy some passing dose of fame — their “15 minutes,” in Andy Warhol’s famous phrase — at some point in life, according to data analyzed by Dr. Brim. The rates are roughly equivalent to those found in American adults. For teenagers, the rates are higher.
Yet for all the dreamers, only one or two in 100 rate fame as their most coveted goal, trumping all others, the data collected by Dr. Brim and others show.
“It’s a distinct type, people who expect to get meaning out of fame, who believe the only way to have their lives make sense is to be famous,” said Tim Kasser, a psychologist at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. “We all need to make meaning out of our lives, and this is one way people attempt to do it.”
Therapists and researchers, including Dr. Brim, have traced longing for renown to lingering feelings of rejection or neglect. After all, celebrity is the ultimate high school in-group, writ large. It appears a perfect balm for the sting of social exclusion, or neglect by emotionally or physically absent parents.
In her memoir, “In the Shadow of Fame,” Sue Erikson Bloland, daughter of the renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, writes, “He had the kind of charisma that made people hungry to know him — to become privy to what he was thinking and feeling and writing about.”
Dr. Erikson’s dogged pursuit of recognition, she writes, was partly due to a sense of abandonment: he never knew his biological father, who disappeared before he was born. Decades later, Dr. Erikson still sought comfort and guidance from others, “but his pursuit of reassurance was not simply the charming humility it was generally interpreted to be,” she writes. “It expressed a persistent and tormenting self-doubt.”
Another factor may also be at work in many people who are preoccupied with becoming famous, one linked to a subconscious but acute appreciation of mortality. In recent experiments, psychologists have shown that, when reminded that they will one day die, people fixate on attributes they consider central to their self-worth.
Those who value strength squeeze a hand grip with more force; those who prize driving ability, cooking skills or physical appearance intensify their focus.
“Given this awareness of our mortality,” said Jeffrey Greenberg, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, “to function securely, we need to feel somehow protected from this existential predicament, to feel like we are more than just material animals fated only to obliteration upon death.
“We accomplish that by trying to view ourselves as enduringly valuable contributors to a meaningful world. And the more others validate our value, the more special and therefore secure we can feel.”
The odds of achieving some measure of notoriety — a Nobel, an Oscar, a plaque in the Curling Hall of Fame — are so remote that it is no surprise when unrealized ambition curdles into psychological struggle.
In a 1996 study, Richard M. Ryan of the University of Rochester and Dr. Kasser, then at Rochester, conducted in-depth surveys of 100 adults, asking about their aspirations, guiding principles, and values, as well as administering standard measures of psychological well-being.
The participants in the study who focused on goals tied to others’ approval, like fame, reported significantly higher levels of distress than those interested primarily in self-acceptance and friendship.
Surveys done since then, in communities around the world, suggest the same thing: aiming for a target as elusive as fame, and so dependent on the judgments of others, is psychologically treacherous.
Freud might have agreed: he is said to have fainted only twice in his life, both times when he perceived a threat to his legacy.
What of fame-seekers who actually slip through the looking glass and make it? Few celebrities confess to their fame-yearnings, and few if any have consented to anything like a psychological study of motivation and psychological well-being. And someone at the center of a scandal has an experience different from a beloved writer of children’s books.
Many prominent novelists, actors, writers and musicians find lasting satisfaction in seeing others moved by their work. And the limos and V.I.P. seating and private beach parties cannot be too difficult to endure.
Still, scholars, psychologists and some celebrity memoirists seem to agree that, for all its rewards, fame can also eat its own — as the historian Leo Braudy has written, “lurking behind every chance to be made whole by fame is the axman of further dismemberment.”
Public recognition can bring a heightened focus on the self. Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, studied the careers of Kurt Cobain, Cole Porter and John Cheever.
In their works, Dr. Schaller found, all three of these artists began referring to themselves more frequently after they became famous. The increase was slight in the case of Mr. Cobain, the rock star who committed suicide in 1994 at age 27. It was far more pronounced in Mr. Porter’s songs, and in the stories of Mr. Cheever, who also reported drinking more heavily after receiving wide acclaim.
These three artists are hardly a representative sample, and each probably had some self-destructive tendencies before achieving popular success. But increased self-consciousness can plunge almost anyone into rumination over soured relationships or lost opportunities, psychologists find. And famous people in particular are forced to judge themselves against ideals set by others.
“If you or I hear our own voice on tape, or see ourselves on camera, we might say: ‘Wait a minute, I’m a doofus. I’m not the sharp guy I thought I was,’ and we can cope with that, we can try harder,” Dr. Schaller said. “But it’s a little different if you’re a Bruce Willis or somebody. The ideals others have for you are crazy. It’s virtually impossible to meet them, and you can’t escape this heightened self-awareness.”
None of which may dissuade a single soul from grabbing for the ring if given a chance — or from longing and half-expecting lightning to strike. Because who really knows? Fame is fickle, sometimes random, and its effect on any one person is not predictable. Perhaps that is the source of its catnip fragrance: the unknowns, the secret horrors and joys, the private alchemy revealed only to those for whom the door swings open.
In compiling his research, Dr. Brim, 83, thought much about how an intense desire to reach this unknowable, alluring state of being might affect older people’s behavior, if the motive did not fade.
“I concluded that several things could happen, and one of them is to find another source of approval,” he said. “That might be a great love, if you’re lucky. Or perhaps it is a deepening belief in God. But I think many people suffer with realization that they are not going to be famous and there’s nothing they can do to solve it.”