One of the many cognitive biases that affects us 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. On the flipside, less attractive people are perceived as possessing less qualities than those who are more attractive. It’s a serious issue, because our brain, without us even noticing, is judging someone based on very limited information. The same applies to other characteristics, such as talent (artists, musicians), or expertise (we believe that expertise in one field equals expertise in all fields).
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. And just like we listen to them in regards to products, we also do it in regards to ideology.
Indeed, as one author 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 don’t criticize their opinions or question their views. Many of them 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 some “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 “celebrities” (musicians or otherwise) whose opinions are the result of thorough research, and whose voices should be heard. The problem happens when we assume that their views should be listened to and, worst of all, taken seriously, simply because of their fame.
In the classic poem Desiderata, Max Ehrmann wrote
“… listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their stories.”
To this verse I would add: “But don’t forget to take their opinions for what they are: The opinions of the dull and ignorant.”