An email with the subject line "OMG" recently came from one of our mothers, and it contained chilling information about the
FOR THE RECORD:
Celebrity advice: A Dec. 18 Op-Ed article on celebrities and health advice had a quote from a viewer who said that 200 people had died from the HPV vaccine, with Katie Couric's talk show as the source. The show reported that there have been more than 200 claims filed, including 11 from families who believe the vaccine caused their children's deaths. —
Her source was not her doctor, a new study or the
Unfortunately, Mom is not alone. Celebrities have crept into our medicine cabinets and kitchens, influencing what pills we pop, tests we order and foods we fear. More often than not, their advice and products are dubious. "Then why do so many people believe them?" Mom asked.
This time, we have an answer. One of us — Hoffman — just published a review of research on celebrity in the Dec. 18 issue of the British Medical Journal. It addresses this question.
The review draws on studies from a range of disciplines and synthesizes key narratives on celebrity followership. The conclusion? Our brains, psyches and societies appear to be hardwired to trust celebrities, whether on anti-vaccine antics or miracle medicines.
Economics tells us that we use celebrity endorsements as signals or shortcuts for judging qualities such as validity or relevance. So when Bill Clinton recommends
The halo theory from marketing studies explains how celebrities' success in one area — say, acting — makes people presume they are competent in unrelated areas — say, medicine. This influences how we interpret their health messages no matter how nonsensical, and may explain why
Classical conditioning suggests that we learn to psychologically associate unrelated stimuli in a way that exposure to them achieves similar responses. This means warm feelings toward celebrities are stirred up in us by the things they pitch. It's no surprise, then, that PepsiCo paid Beyoncé $50 million to promote its products.
Neuroscience studies also help explain why these endorsements work on us. Brain scans have demonstrated that images of celebrities increase activity in our medial orbitofrontal cortices, the region responsible for forming positive associations. So if you're an
Reason should help us overcome an illogical addiction to celebrity health advice. Questioning prescriptions from prominent people and asking about the evidence behind them could save us time, money and harm. But, as the science shows, celebrity influence is not rational.
The first step to addressing celebrity medicine is recognizing that it is a human vulnerability and a serious public health challenge. Doing that can empower us to think twice before we take advice from the stars.
We should also use these new insights to rethink how we promote healthy living and evidence-based decision-making. Actress and anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy may be their arch-nemesis, but doctors and public health practitioners can learn from her. Making vaccines, exercise and