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Why Do You Want to Be Famous?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In 2012, a study found that a desire for fame solely for the sake of being famous was the most popular future goal among a group of 10-12 year olds, overshadowing hopes for financial success, achievement, and a sense of community. Which raises the question: Why do people want to be famous?

John Maltby found six major reasons why people seek fame:

  • Intensity (e.g., “Very little matters to me apart from being famous”)
  • Vulnerability (e.g., “I want to be famous because it would help me overcome issues I have about myself”)
  • Celebrity Life-Style (e.g., “I want to be rich”)
  • Drive (e.g., “I work hard everyday to be famous”)
  • Perceived Suitability (e.g., “I have got what it takes to be famous”)
  • Altruistic (e.g., “I want to be famous so I can make a contribution to society”)

The predominant motivations for fame involved a perceived suitability and intensity for a celebrity life-style. Unsurprisingly, those motivations were most strongly related to narcissism. In contrast, people who were more agreeable and securely attached tended to be more motivated by altruistic interests, and conscientious folks tended to be more motivated by drive.

A new study by Dara Greenwood and colleagues extended these findings by constructing a new measure of fame that involved fewer, more focused items. The researchers found three main reasons why people seek fame:

  • The desire to be seen/valued (e.g., “Being on the cover of a magazine”, “Being recognized in public”)
  • The desire for an elite, high status lifestyle (e.g., “Having the ability to travel in first class and stay at exclusive resorts”, “Living in a mansion or penthouse apartment”)
  • The desire to use fame to help others or make them proud (e.g., “Being able to financially support family and friends”, “Being a role model to others”)

The desire to be seen/valued was the biggest perceived appeal of fame, followed by the desire for status, followed by a prosocial motivation. Interestingly, the motivations were associated with different fundamental human needs. While narcissism and the need to belong were associated with multiple motivations, the need to relate to others was only associated with the prosocial motivation.

To look deeper into these motivations, the researchers also measured the frequency of fantasizing about fame, and the perceived realism of becoming famous. They found that narcissistic folks focused on the recognition and elite status that fame offers, and believed future fame to be more realistic. In contrast, those with a heightened need to belong were attracted to all aspects of fame, except for a perceived belief in the realism of fame. For these folks, the central aspect of fame was fantasizing about fame and the imagined social worth fame would provide, perhaps providing these folks with a soothing escape from personal anxieties about social exclusion. Nevertheless, it seems that both those scoring high in narcissism and a high need for belonging share a common need to be seen and valued on a large scale.

Those scoring high in relatedness tended to score lower in narcissism and only showed an interest in prosocial fame. Therefore, it seems it’s important to distinguish between the need to belong– to feel positively and consistently connected to others– and the need to relate. Research shows that people with a high need for relatedness are not anxious about social exclusion, have a greater sense of security with their immediate social network, and are more confident that they are valued by others. In turn, they tend to report a positive mood, vitality, and well-being.

Scientifically studying the appeal of fame, and the underlying motives, can be fruitful. For instance, consider the study I mentioned earlier that found that fame for the sake of fame was the greatest desire among a group of preadolescents. The researchers noted that preoccupations with peer acceptance, which is a natural preoccupation among that age group, might make the social recognition that comes with fame all the more appealing. Therefore, the intense desire for fame among preadolescents and teenagers can be put in a broader context, satisfying a fundamental human need.

There are also links to creativity. Marie Forgeard and Anne Mecklenburg conducted a large review of the role of motivation in creativity. While they found the importance of intrinsic (i.e., process-focused) and extrinsic (i.e., outcome-focused) motivation, they also argue for an overlooked motivator of creativity: prosocial motivation. Perhaps creativity researchers can join forces with researchers investigating the appeal of fame to see if there are common motivations that underlie both the desire to create and the desire for fame. For instance, perhaps  famous people with a prosocial motivation produce creative work that has a distinct prosocial flavor to it.

Regardless, the current research certainly is fascinating, and suggests that the appeal of fame is rooted in basic human needs, and differences in the desire for fame are associated with the extent to which such needs are satisfied.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

image credit: istockphoto

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. And Then What? 6:00 pm 09/4/2013

    In accordance with the Universal “Law of Natural Balance” History records the deeds of only 2 groups. The Famous and the Infamous. The rest of us are just Dust briefly blown about on the winds of Time until we eventually settle down on one of History’s forgotten landscapes and are covered by those other Insignificant dust particles coming up behind us.

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  2. 2. Douglas Eby 7:00 pm 09/4/2013

    Actor Jennifer Lawrence comments about how assaultive and how much negative impact it can have: “If I were just your average 23-year-old girl and I called the police to say that there were strange men sleeping on my lawn and following me to Starbucks, they would leap into action. But because I am a famous person, ‘Well, sorry, ma’am, there’s nothing we can do.’ It makes no sense.” A counselor who works with a number of prominent actors, Mary Rocamora thinks “Many gifted performers crave public recognition because it fuels their creative process…Becoming famous and respected almost certainly brings opportunities to work with other gifted individuals.” But the dark side of fame can undermine personal and creative growth. – From article: Dealing with fame – or not

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  3. 3. vapur 8:32 pm 09/4/2013

    quotes, “Therefore, the intense desire for fame among preadolescents and teenagers can be put in a broader context, satisfying a fundamental human need.”

    What about those of us who avoid fame? Seeing these people hounded by paparazzi, nope don’t want that. Seeing all these rich people who are insulated by such a big comfort zone they care only about themselves, nope don’t want that either. Having a big house, and big family, and being able to buy all the latest toys … who cares. We don’t need any of it. Life doesn’t need to be complicated, nor does its goal need to be full of passion for play things.

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  4. 4. theirmind 3:12 am 09/5/2013

    I was one of them.

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  5. 5. inventorof 4:06 pm 09/5/2013

    the altruistic fame seekers are sacrificing their anonymity for people they want to benefit.

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  6. 6. sunspot 2:05 pm 09/6/2013

    Does the study conflate fame with “instant gratification” which is simply brain chemistry related to endorphins and addiction? Addiction is an artificial “need”.

    Does the study relate the fame “need” to procreation; that is survival of the species, which is our only way to live on in the genetic memory. Procreation can also result from selfish (narcicist) motives, but with lower chance of survival of the species due to the absence of parental (altruistic) instinct.

    The author’s terminology seems unnecessarily complicated and imprecise. It would seem more concise to use the term “seeking external validation” rather than “seeking fame”. Contrast this term with “internal validation” which is either self-sufficient (altruistic) behavior, or self-absorbed (narcicist) behavior.

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  7. 7. annabanna 10:43 pm 09/6/2013

    What I got, from the article, is there are two basic human desires: the desire to be to be valued and a need to value others. The motivation for fame comes from both desires. Narcissism comes into play when there is a desire to be valued. Likewise, relativeness comes into play when there is a desire to value others. After reading the article, I ascertained the main thesis to be ‘the desire to value ourselves and value others is essentially human’.

    It is true that fame is a really good way of valuing others. There is no doubt that celebrities hold a valued place in our collective tribe. Celebrities are commonalities among us, and as such we bond over them. Whether we like them or hate them, celebrities give us something to talk about on Facebook. We can compare ourselves to them, and either feel superior to them or worship then from afar.

    Our psyches need such comparison. Before the phenomenon of celebrity, there were Gods whose struggles and affairs entertained us mere humans. There is something about having figures above us either mythical or celebrity that is very human.

    If tantalizing stories of Gods have been supplemented by tantalizing stories of celebrity, is the million dollar industry selling celeb stories just simply human garbage left over from a less refined time? Why do we still have celebrity? There must be a fundamentally human need for gossip. If gossiping about Zeus sexual conquests isn’t in vogue, why not gossip about the latest celebrity’s sexual conquests?

    The question then becomes what is fame? I ask this question because how can we ascertain why some people are motivated by fame if fame isn’t clearly defined. Fame is a subjective. Thus, fame is seen differently by each individual viewing it. Fame, to me, might be an important social construct and to someone else a waste of our collective energies.

    There is something fundamentally human in humanity’s need for fame, but what is it? Fame was started in the twentieth century. First, fame started with Public Relation Field. In the early twentieth century, PR guys were needed experts for business men. Later, in the twentieth century, PR guys were needed in the entertainment industry.

    Then again, why have we replaced Gods with real human beings? Is it only narcissism giving us the drive to don the huge shoes of Gods, or is there something else amiss in our world? Who would really want to be a God?

    All I know is that this article left me with more questions than answers. There certainly is a bigger picture here than just narcissism and relativeness. A picture where we, ultimately, need to decide what we value. Do we value the entertainment industry? If so, why do we value entertainer more than others. Is there a need for gossip? Since we all recognize those on TV and in the movies, are they easy targets for gossip? Then again, maybe there is a deeper need, a need to bond over savory stories and have a commonality. Whatever constitutes fame, it is a huge player in our lives. Fame is something we don’t like to analyze, but we really should analyze.

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  8. 8. nmtucson 10:16 am 09/7/2013

    I wonder if the notion of scaffolding can be applied here? It seems very likely that our primitive brain was strongly shaped by the need to “be famous” in the sense of having our peers recognize us as a member of the group. If you didn’t have a group, you were left unprotected and vulnerable. These days few of us have to worry about dying because we are not recognized, but that lingering underlying concern might fuel this desire for fame for fame’s sake. That and the media examples these kids see, lauding people whose only contribution is their fame. If *being* famous is all it takes to be famous, why complicate it by having to *do* something meaningful too?

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  9. 9. Satya Narayan Tiwary 8:04 am 09/8/2013

    Desire to be famous is inborn.
    Everybody loves to be famous.

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  10. 10. atrop 6:51 pm 09/11/2013

    This is a very humanistic behavior. Their is motivation is to satisfy human needs. They are influenced by what they see on tv or read in magazines. This is most common in teens.

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  11. 11. shumicpi 12:56 am 12/4/2013

    I want to be famous, because I want to be rich!

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  12. 12. ThatTeenageAuthor 6:59 pm 02/19/2014

    I want to be famous. Not for society, society is already botched as it is. I want to help girls and boys whom are my age, not the one’s currently my age but one day you know? I want them to see me, unperfect in every way and not crave to be something different. I want a world of teenagers to be themselves, to have people who actually don’t care what everyone else is doing but to be both selfish and courteous enough to be and pay no attention to anything but what they are doing. I want to start a fad, only one fad. That fad? A fad where everyone else in the entire world is themselves.

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  13. 13. ghostdave 1:19 pm 03/11/2014

    I used to play guitar in a rock band. But then, I died. What is funny is that people saw through me even before I became a ghost.

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  14. 14. Selfmade 1:17 am 08/3/2014

    This article is quite interesting as by the nature of writing the article the author either overtly, or unconsciously seeks fame. Isn’t the desire for fame inevitable when we are “social” creatures by design?

    Let’s just cut to the chase and agree… we all seek fame.. and though our “false modesty” and well stated protests of our disdain for money and materialism… don’t we each also seek to have fortune?

    of course we do….. so.. the question is truly more about where do you get your fame, and what type of fortune will you strive to enjoy.

    Style… and status are the core focal points of this science… not the mindset of “why we seek fame”… that’s reduced to one simple term. Human’s thrive amongst other creatures and are not wired to survive solo…. Fame is a natural result. ~~~~~~

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