Why Celebrities Can Do No Wrong

Take a moment to think about your favorite celebrity. Perhaps it’s an actor or actress whose movies you love or an inspiring figure you look up to. Now, imagine you just found out that your favorite celebrity did something terrible – maybe he or she said something racist, was found to abuse drugs, or was incredibly rude and insensitive to fans. Would this change your opinion of the celebrity?

A recent study suggests learning negative information about our favorite celebrities actually might not change our opinions.  This tendency people have to not change their beliefs when presented with evidence that suggest they are wrong is known as belief perseveration. This can happen because people can outright ignore negative information, or reinterpret the negative information in a way that more closely aligns with their current beliefs. Another component to this is emotional belief perseveration which includes not only how a person perceives a celebrity, but also how they feel. Attitudes with this emotional component can be very hard to change.

There are two ways researchers have found to decrease belief perseveration. The first is taking time to consider all the information, particularly thinking about reasons your opinion might not be correct. The second is to consider the credibility of the information source. Actually watching a video of a celebrity saying something racist may do more to change your opinion than reading about the incident on the cover of a tabloid.

In this study, participants were asked to think of their favorite celebrity.  The researchers then manipulated the source credibility by asking if hearing negative information from family, friends, or the media, the celebrity being caught doing something bad by the media, or the celebrity behaving badly on TV or social media would change the likelihood the person would believe the information and how much it would influence the person’s feelings towards the celebrity. Participants were also asked how many reasons they could think of that another person might not like their favorite celebrity.

Overall, the researchers found that the source of the information did have an effect – the celebrity need to be either caught by the media or have actually said or done something inappropriate on TV or social media for people to believe the negative information was true. However, they also found that learning negative information did not do much to change people’s emotional feeling about their favorite celebrity. Even if the celebrity actually demonstrated the bad behavior in a public forum, only 22% said that this would change their feelings. When the negative information was reported by family or friends, 99% said this would have no effect on their feelings. Finally, for participants who were asked to consider reasons others might not like their favorite celebrity, when the negative information was reported by family and friends, belief perseveration was actually higher! The researchers theorize that considering why others might not like a favorite celebrity might lead people to label these others as merely “haters” whose opinions do not matter.

To some extent, this make sense. For instance, Jennifer Aniston has been rumored to pregnant or in a blood feud with Angelina Jolie many more times than she actually has. So, fans might actually benefit from discounting certain information because it may in fact not be true. However, this study does tell us something negative about how we view celebrities if even direct evidence of bad behavior is not enough to change how we feel. So, next time your favorite celebrity is involved in a scandal, think about your reasons for ignoring or discounting the negative information before you do.

Bui, N.H. (2014). I don’t believe it! Belief perseveration in attitudes toward celebrities. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(1), 38-48.

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