Celebrity fascination tied to lower intelligence
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BMC Psychology

volume 9, Article number: 174 (2021)
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Abstract

Background

Almost two decades of research produced mixed findings on the relationship between celebrity worship and cognitive skills. Several studies demonstrated that cognitive performance slightly decreases with higher levels of celebrity worship, while other studies found no association between these constructs. This study has two aims: (1) to extend previous research on the association between celebrity worship and cognitive skills by applying the two-factor theory of intelligence by Cattell on a relatively large sample of Hungarian adults, and (2) to investigate the explanatory power of celebrity worship and other relevant variables in cognitive performance.

Methods

A cross-sectional study design was used. Applying an online survey, a total of 1763 Hungarian adults (66.42% male, Mage = 37.22 years, SD = 11.38) completed two intelligence subtests designed to measure ability in vocabulary (Vocabulary Test) and digit symbol (Short Digit Symbol Test). Participants also completed the Celebrity Attitude Scale and the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale. Subjective material wealth, current family income and general sociodemographics were also reported by participants.

Results

Linear regression models indicated that celebrity worship was associated with lower performance on the cognitive tests even after controlling for demographic variables, material wealth and self-esteem, although the explanatory power was limited.

Conclusions

These findings suggest that there is a direct association between celebrity worship and poorer performance on the cognitive tests that cannot be accounted for by demographic and socioeconomic factors.

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Introduction

It has been about two decades since a study first showed that those who scored high on a measure of attraction to one’s favorite celebrity also tended to score low on measures of cognitive skills [1]. Since then, research has produced mixed findings on the relationship between celebrity worship and cognitive skills. Several studies demonstrated that cognitive performance slightly decreases with higher levels of celebrity worship [2,3,4], although some studies found only limited support for the association between these constructs [5, 6]. An early study by Martin et al. [2] proposed that celebrity worship may interfere with the information processing of individuals who are more prone to get absorbed in the personal details of a celebrity. Celebrity worship, as an excessive behavior, was also associated with several behavioral addictions (e.g., problematic Internet and social media use [7, 8], compulsive buying [9], gambling addiction [10]), and these problematic behaviors are known to have negative effects on school/work performance, social relationships and cognitive functioning [11]. Therefore, it can be expected that excessive involvement with an admired celebrity may interfere with cognitive performance due to the limited ability to focus on other things than the celebrity. Although some studies supported this notion by revealing an association between celebrity worship and poorer cognitive skills [2,3,4], these studies were conducted on a sample of less than 200 college students from the UK and USA, focused only on a few cognitive skills without a theoretical frame, and did not explore the role of socioeconomic factors (e.g., income, subjective wealth, education) when investigating the contribution of celebrity worship to poorer performance on cognitive tests. Therefore, there is a lack of information regarding the possible contribution of socioeconomic factors to cognitive performance besides celebrity worship. This study endeavors to extend previous research on the direct association between celebrity worship and cognitive performance by using the two-factor theory of intelligence by Cattell [12, 13]. The present research was conducted on a relatively large sample of Hungarian adults (N = 1763), which allow the exploration of this association in a culturally different context. This study also aims to draw a clearer picture of the explanatory power of celebrity worship and other relevant socioeconomic factors in various cognitive skills. The investigation of these associations could possibly increase our understanding of the diversity of cognitive performance among fans. Specifically, we measured the relationship between fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence, and the admiration for one’s favorite celebrity, controlling for extraneous variables that might explain earlier findings. The main control variables in our research were measures of self-esteem, current family income, and perceived relative material wealth.

Celebrity worship

Celebrity worship has been defined as an increased admiration towards a famous person, which sometimes manifests in an excessive interest in the life of a celebrity (see [14, 15]). The Celebrity Attitude Scale (CAS) was developed in order to have a reliable and valid way to measure excessive devotion to celebrities. Factor analysis has revealed three increasingly more extreme sets of attitudes and behaviors associated with celebrity worship. A low level of celebrity worship, dubbed Entertainment-Social, has generally been shown to be benign [16]. The second level, labeled Intense-Personal, reflects individuals’ compulsive feelings about the celebrity. The most extreme expression of celebrity worship is labeled Borderline-Pathological. This third level is believed to reflect an individual’s borderline pathological attitudes and behaviors toward a favorite celebrity. In most studies, the second and third levels were associated with problematic behavior [17, 18].

Cognitive skills

There are several studies that have found modest relationships between scores on the CAS and various measures of cognitive ability. Specifically, these relationships collectively indicate that persons who tend to excessively admire their favorite celebrities also tend to score lower on measures of cognitive ability (see [19] for a review).

A study of American college students yielded several significant correlates of CAS scores and measures of cognitive skills. Specifically, CAS correlated negatively with a measure of creativity called the Remote Associates Test [20], a test of information similar to those found on IQ tests, a test of critical thinking ability, and a “Squares” problem, in which participants had to determine the total number of squares embedded within a very large square. Correlation coefficients ranged between − 0.39 and − 0.31, and two of the three were significant at the 0.001 level. Two other measures, an arithmetic test and the Need for Cognition scale [21], also correlated negatively with CAS scores and barely missed significance [1]. A followup study attempted to generalize these results to other cognitive measures with limited success. Scores on an Advanced Reasoning Skills test correlated negatively with all three subscales of the CAS, but was significant on only one of them. Scores on the Intellectual Flexibility Scale [22] correlated negatively but weakly with only one of the three CAS subscales. In addition, an attempt to determine why celebrity worship is linked to cognitive ability failed to produce meaningful results [5].

Using a measure of cognitive flexibility different from that used by McCutcheon et al. [5], researchers found significant negative correlations with two of the three CAS subscales [2]. A study of three analytic thinking ability measures formed a pattern of relationships with the three subscales of the CAS. Eight of the nine resulting correlation coefficients were negative, and four of them were significant at the 0.01 level [3]. A recent study found that the correlation between total CAS scores and a vocabulary test, an environmental knowledge test, and a test of knowledge of nature-related words ranged from − 0.30 to − 0.39, all significant at the 0.001 level [23].

Based on these studies, it is apparent that high scores on the CAS are associated with lower scores on various measures of cognitive ability. However, at least two things about this relationship are not so clear. For one, what are the underlying causes of this relationship? Is it possible that some third variable is responsible for the link between cognitive ability and celebrity admiration? This study calls for plans to control for some correlates of cognitive ability, (i.e. self-esteem, current family income, material wealth, highest level of education) in an attempt to identify one or more variables that might be responsible for the link between cognitive skills and celebrity worship.

Furthermore, no previous study has attempted to fit the link between cognitive ability and celebrity admiration into a theoretical framework. We are adopting the two-factor theory of intelligence developed by Cattell. According to Cattell, intelligence can be conceptualized as broadly consisting of fluid and crystallized intelligence [12, 13]. The former is the ability to reason, see patterns, analyze, and solve new problems, without using much previously obtained knowledge. It is considered to be relatively culture free. The critical thinking test used by McCutcheon et al. [1] and the Advanced Reasoning Skills test [5] both measure fluid intelligence.

In the present study we used items from the Short Digit Symbol Test (SDST) as a measure of fluid intelligence. A similar digit symbol test has been shown to load 0.63 on a performance/fluid factor of intelligence but only 0.17 on a verbal/crystallized factor [24]. Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, is the ability to use one’s skills and knowledge obtained in the past. The vocabulary test used by Aruguete et al. [23] and the information test used by McCutcheon et al. [1] exemplify attempts to measure crystallized intelligence. In the present study we used a vocabulary test similar to that used by Aruguete and colleagues, but adapted for Hungarians. Vocabulary knowledge is highly related to general intelligence [25], and is widely considered to be a strong measure of crystallized intelligence [26].

Based on our literature review, the present study aims to extend previous research on the association of celebrity worship with cognitive skills by applying Cattell’s two-factor theory of intelligence. The relatively large sample of Hungarian adults allows for the testing of this association in a culturally diverse background compared to previous studies that have used mostly student samples from the UK and the USA. Furthermore, this study aims to explore the contribution of celebrity worship and other relevant factors (e.g., demographic characteristics, material wealth, self-esteem) to cognitive performance. The present investigation also addresses the question of whether celebrity worship has a unique contribution to cognitive performance on tests measuring crystallized and fluid intelligence. The exploration of these associations could provide with a more nuanced picture of the nature of the association between celebrity worship and cognitive ability.

Hypothesis

H1

Performance on the vocabulary test (crystallized intelligence), the short digit symbol test (fluid intelligence) and the combination of both will decrease with increasing levels of celebrity worship.

H2

There will be a negative relationship between scores on the vocabulary test, the short digit symbol test and the combination of both and celebrity worship after controlling for gender, age, educational level, current family income, current and childhood material wealth and self-esteem.

RQ1

Which are the most powerful predictors of cognitive performance on the vocabulary and the short digit symbol tests?

Methods

Participants and procedure

The participants were recruited from a popular Hungarian news website (444.hu). Participants were invited to complete an online questionnaire focusing on attitudes towards celebrities and cognitive/mental status. Participation was voluntary and anonymity was provided for the respondents. Informed consent was obtained from all participants. The research was conducted with the approval of the research team’s university and was carried out following the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki.

A total of 1763 Hungarian adults (66.42% male, Mage = 37.22 years, SD = 11.38, age ranged from 18 to 79 years) completed the online survey. The majority of participants reported having a college degree or higher (n = 1244; 70.56%), while another considerable proportion of them reported having a secondary school certification (n = 479; 28.19%), and only 1.25% (n = 22) completed eight or less classes at primary school. Nearly one-third of participants reported having 301,000–600,000 HUF (about 1005–2003 USD) as a monthly household income after taxes (n = 554; 31.42%), one-quarter reported having 101,000–300,000 HUF (about 337–1002 USD) (n = 451; 25.58%), and only a small minority reported having less than 100,000 HUF (about 334 USD) (n = 60; 3.40%). Another considerable proportion of participants reported having 601,000–1,000,000 HUF (about 2006–3338 USD) as a monthly household income after taxes (n = 314; 17.81%), while only a small proportion of participants reported having more than 1,000,000 HUF (about 3338 USD) monthly.

Measures

Celebrity Attitude Scale (CAS). The 23-item version of the CAS has good psychometric properties [14, 27,28,29,30]. The response format for the CAS is a 5-point Likert scale with “strongly disagree” = 1 and “strongly agree” = 5. High scores suggest a strong attraction to one’s favorite celebrity.

The CAS consists of three subscales. Entertainment-Social (ES) is reflected in agreement with items like “My friends and I like to discuss what my favorite celebrity has done,” A second level of celebrity worship is characterized by more Intense-Personal (IP) feelings, defined by items like “I have frequent thoughts about my celebrity, even when I don’t want to.” The third level, labeled Borderline-Pathological (BP), is shown in items like: “If I were lucky enough to meet my favorite celebrity, and he/she asked me to do something illegal as a favor I would probably do it.” Across several studies total scale Cronbach alphas ranged from 0.84 to 0.94 [15]. Cronbach alpha in the present study was 0.91 for the total scale, 0.84 for the Entertainment–Social subscale, 0.83 for the Intense–Personal subscale, and 0.55 for the Borderline–Pathological subscale.

The Hungarian version of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES-HU; [31, 32]) consists of 10 items, examples of which are “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself,” and “At times I think I am no good at all” (reverse scored). “Strongly Disagree” is equal to 1, and “Strongly Agree” is equal to 4. High scores suggest a person who has high self-esteem. The RSES has been widely accepted in the scientific community [33]. Cronbach alpha in the present study was 0.90 for the total scale.

Current Family Income is a self-reported estimated measure of the amount of monthly household income after taxes for the family. The question and response categories were derived from the National Survey on Addiction Problems in Hungary (OLAAP) [34]. For the data analysis, this variable was linearized by calculating the middle point of the amounts, and was standardized. Therefore, z-scores were used in further data analysis.

Perceived Relative Material Wealth is assessed using the question and response options derived from national surveys in Hungary, such as the National Survey on Addiction Problems in Hungary (OLAAP) [34] and the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) [35]. Participants are asked to indicate the extent to which they perceive their family’s current material wealth compared to others. Participants are also asked to rate their material wealth when the participant was a child. The response format is a seven-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (highly among the best) to 7 (among the worst). Therefore, lower scores indicate higher perceived material wealth.

Vocabulary Test (VOCAB) consists of 30 stimulus words randomly selected from an online quiz prepared by Encyclopedia Britannica [36]. Each stimulus word is followed by four possible one-word definitions, of which one is correct. Examples of stimulus words and their correct definitions that we used are: vain-conceited, amorphous-shapeless, and elucidate-explain. We pilot tested VOCAB with a sample of 35 American university students, and based on the results (mean correct = 12.54, SD = 4.70) we substituted three new words (futile, condone, jargon) for the three most frequently missed words on the pilot version, and retested with a larger and better educated sample. The result was a mean of 23.10 and an SD of 6.11. We replicated the pilot test in a Hungarian sample of adults (N = 76; 77.6% female, Mage = 26.5 years, SD = 5.5). Participants were highly educated (63.2% had college degree or higher, 34.2% secondary school certificate, and only 2.6% completed eight classes or less). Items were translated and back-translated following the protocol by [37]. The mean of correct answers was 27.96 (SD = 1.75). Six items were answered correctly by all of the participants. Participants spent an average of 163.76 s (about 2 min and 44 s) completing the test (5.46 s/item). The time limit was set to 4 min. In order to decrease the ceiling effect, the six items that could be answered correctly by all of the participants were deleted. Therefore, 24 items remained for which an average completion time was estimated and determined at 131 s. Based on this, a new time constraint (2 min) was set for the final data collection. The purpose of the Vocabulary test was to serve as a brief measure of crystallized intelligence. Previous studies have used a vocabulary test as a brief substitute for a battery of crystallized measures [38, 39] because vocabulary scores correlate highly with several other crystallized measures, but minimally with measures of fluid intelligence [24].

The Short Digit Symbol Test (SDST) is a 30-item subtest modeled after the Digit Symbol Test found on the Multidimensional Aptitude Battery-Form L [40]. The SDST is similar in that it contains nine symbols, each corresponding to digits one through nine, and five possible answers, labeled “A” through “E.” Another similarity is that the initial items are easy and gradually become more difficult. For example, Item one on both subtests has only one pairing of a symbol with a digit, items 2, and 3 pair two symbols with two digits, and items 4, 5, 6, and 7 pair three symbols with three digits. Yet another similarity is that the correct answer is evenly spread across all five possible answers. For the more difficult items, such as item 30, which has eight pairs of symbols with eight digits on both subtests, the correct answer choice is deliberately made more difficult by making one or more incorrect answers similar to the correct one. Dissimilarities include the fact that the Digit Symbol Test contains 35 items, compared to 30 on the SDST. The Digit Symbol Test should be slightly more difficult, because items 31–35 all contain nine symbols, whereas the SDST never contains more than eight. To adjust for this difference, time allotted for the SDST is six minutes as compared to seven minutes allotted for the Digit Symbol Test. Also, the symbols correspond to different numbers. For example, the + symbol corresponds to 6 on the Digit Symbol Test but the + symbol corresponds to 7 on the SDST. The object of both tests is to get as many items correct as possible within the allotted time. To do so, it requires the test-taker to remember which symbol corresponds to which digit. Constantly having to look at the box of symbols and digits at the top of each page is time-consuming, making it more difficult to finish within the allotted time. The task is made more difficult by presenting one or more incorrect answers on each of the items that are similar to the correct answer. A pilot test was conducted with the participation of 36 Hungarian adults (72.2% female, Mage = 27.3 years, SD = 7.9). Participants were again highly educated (50.0% had college degree or higher, 47.2% secondary school certificate, and 2.8% completed eight classes or less). The average of correct answers was 18.4 (SD = 5.8) using a time constraint of 6 min. Provided that the range of correct answers (from 7 to 30) was wide, the time limit of 6 min was set for the final data collection.

Statistical analysis

The measures described above were assembled in several different orders to reduce the likelihood of a systematic order effect. Statistical analysis was carried out using SPSS version 20 (IBM SPSS Inc., Chicago, Illinois). First, zero-order correlations were computed to explore the associations between cognitive ability test scores, and celebrity worship scores (Hypothesis 1), as well as several variables expected to be related to either cognitive ability or celebrity worship. Second, partial correlation was performed to determine if the cognitive test scores would be negatively related to total celebrity worship scores (Hypothesis 2) even after controlling for gender, age, educational level, self-esteem, current family income, current material wealth, and perceived material wealth as a child. The VOCAB and the SDST test scores were combined in a composite z-score for this analysis. In the following step, the contribution of variables to cognitive performance was explored using multiple linear regressions (RQ1). In order to investigate the predictive power of each variable, univariate linear regressions were also conducted in which the independent variables were entered separately.

Results

Associations between celebrity worship, material wealth and cognitive ability

To test H1, associations between study variables were investigated. According to the results (see Table 1), higher scores on the three dimensions of celebrity worship were consistently associated with lower performance on the two cognitive ability tests (i.e., the vocabulary test and the digit symbol test), although these associations generally were weak (rs were between − 0.05 and − 0.12, respectively). Therefore, H1 was supported.

Table 1 Zero-order correlations among study-variables (N = 1763)

Consistent with H2, partial correlations confirmed the weak, negative relationship among celebrity worship and cognitive skills in all aspects except for the relationship between the vocabulary test and the Entertainment–Social dimension of celebrity worship, which was not significant (see Table 2). Demographic characteristics, self-esteem, current income and material wealth were control variables in this analysis.

Table 2 Partial correlations among celebrity worship and cognitive skills (N = 1763)

The associations of cognitive performance

In the second step, linear regressions were conducted to explore the most influential predictors of cognitive performance (see Table 3). The model of cognitive tests (F(8, 1536) = 14.58; p < 0.001), VOCAB (F(8, 15

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