One of the many cognitive biases that affects our feeble human minds is “the halo effect.” In a nutshell, it’s a mental shortcut through which people who rank high on one dimension are assumed to also excel on others. Studies show, for example, that we consider attractive people to be smarter and more able than uglier ones. ((The extent to which we are affected by other people’s beauty has been a source of debate in the academic literature, with some recent scholarship suggesting that its effects, although real, are less important than originally suggested. )) On the flipside, uglier people are perceived as possessing less qualities than those who are more attractive; fat people, for example, are perceived as “lazy, unmotivated, lacking in self-discipline, less competent, noncompliant, and sloppy,” (Puhl & Heuer, 2009, p. 941) compared to those with a better body. It’s a serious issue, because our brain, without us even noticing, is judging someone based on very limited information.
Well aware of the potential of this bug in our software, companies and brands have, for well over a century, resorted to celebrity endorsements to promote their products. Michael Jordan’s endorsement pushes the sale of products as varied as Nike, Coke, Wheaties, McDonald’s, Hanes, Oakley and Gatorade, even though there is absolutely no rational reason why we should assume that his opinions on sunglasses or fast food are any better than those of anybody else. Rationally we know that the fact that someone is good at basketball doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s good at anything else, but we still fall for it. And let’s not even go into the whole problem of celebrities pushing sham “medical” treatments, or pushing anti-vaccine idiocy, in which case the halo effect lends itself to produce a real, measurable damage to our lives.
The obsession with celebrities that shaped the second part of the last century seems destined to become only more important in this one. Some have suggested that this obsession, once inherently American but now infecting the whole world, comes as a result of society’s turn to individualism and egalitarianism; “the former entails a sense of entitlement, limitless mobility aspirations and an expansive conception of the self; the latter helps to convince the aspirants that no special talent or qualification is required to ascend to celebrity status.” (Hollander, 2010, p. 390) In other words, we obsess with celebrities because we believe we can one day be one of them, safe in the knowledge that, at least in our minds, we don’t really need to be that special to achieve the celebrity status.
This obsession leads us back to the halo effect, and to our willingness to blindly follow whatever it is the person on the screen (or on the stage) has to say. As an author (Hollander, 2010, p. 390) argued:
“Entertainers are popular and easily ascend to the celebrity status and often are taken far more seriously than they deserve to be, for example when asked to testify at Congressional hearings about weighty public-political matters of which they know little. Their views are earnestly solicited because of their popularity and because politicians seek to increase their own popularity and visibility by associating with celebrities.”
While we might believe that our own little corner of the entertainment business is free from this sort of obsession, the opposite is true. Day after day we are bombarded by what Slipknot’s Corey Taylor has to say about issues such as Donald Trump’s bid for the US presidency, Five Finger Death Punch’s Zoltan Bathory’s crackpot ideas about how the United States is “becoming more communist than China,” Ted Nugent’s ideas on gun control, Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe’s views on the Confederate flag, Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Comerford downright moronic views on ISIS and the moon landing, or, of all people, Kid Rock’s views on politics.
What we usually forget about celebrities, particularly those who have reached a very high level of success, is that they often suffer from a form of arrested development. Reaching fame in their youth meant they were soon surrounded by yes-men who would not dare to criticize their opinions or question their views, as a way to stay close to the spotlight and the money. As it happens to CEOs who surround themselves with people whose whole lives are devoted to sucking up to them, they “are unable to benefit from the diverse perspectives, experience, and knowledge of their subordinates. Worse still, with stress on conformity, ideas are unlikely to be refined and improved through group discussion and debate. (Khatri, 2009, p. 4). To put it bluntly, they will develop an opinion, stick to it, and only become more radical in them as they fail to encounter any challenges, despite, in the case of “celebrities,” having little to no knowledge about what they’re talking about.
“I don’t know what’s more embarrassing, these musicians and actors talking about politics in interviews or the media actually giving them credibility about it.
It’s absurd that a celebrity could speak out on the economy or politics with no more justification than a hit album or a movie. Not to deride Gene, but I just think he’s part of a symptom of absurdity where you’ll see somebody on television whose only criteria for being there is success in a field far away from what they’re being asked about. I really don’t know who is more ridiculous, the celebrity answering these political questions or the person asking them. […]
It’s so embarrassing to see people with absolutely no inside knowledge of anything they are talking about. I have friends who are intimately involved with world affairs and these are the people who won’t give opinions like these celebrities do. For my friends, it’s far more complex and sensitive than that, unlike these celebrities who read some newspaper story, or watch CNN, and then spout out some opinion on something they truly don’t know anything about.”
By all of this I don’t mean to say that none of these people have anything of value to say. On the contrary, there are many musicians (or, ugh, “celebrities”) whose opinions are the result of thorough fact-based investigation, and whose voices should be heard. The problem happens when we assume that their views should be listened and, worst of all, taken seriously, simply as a result of their fame.
In the classic and beautiful poem Desiderata, Max Ehrmann wrote
“… listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their stories.”
What Ehrman’s poem missed, however, was that although we should listen to them, we should also take their advice and their opinions for what they are: The advice of the dull and ignorant.
Patil, Pavan C., “Celebrity: A Key Aspect in Celebrity Endorsement”, Journal of Management and Administration Tomorrow, Vol. 1, nº 2, pp. 33-38
Timmerman, Karl & Hewitt, Jay, “Examining the Halo Effect of Physical Attractiveness”, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 51, nº 2, pp. 607-612
Lucker, G. William; Beane, William E.; helmreich, Robert L., „The Strength of the Halo Effect in Physical Attractiveness Research”, The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, Vol. 102, nº 1, pp. 69-75
Eagly, Alice H.; Ashmore, Richard D.; Makhijani, Mona G.; Longo, Laura C., “What is beautiful is good, but…: A meta-analytic review of research on the physical attractiveness stereotype.”, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 110, nº 1, pp. 109-128
Puhl, Rebecca M., Heuer, Chelsea A., “The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update”, Obesity, Vol. 17, nº 5, pp. 941–964
Kathri, Naresh, “Consequences of Power Distance Orientation in Organisations,” Vision: The Journal of Business Perspective, Vol. 13, nº 1, pp. 1-9