Celebrity Worship: Good for Your Health?

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Alaska governor Sarah Palin greets the crowd after attending a rally for Republican presidential candidate John McCain in Lee's Summit, Mo.

Who among us hasn't fallen victim to a little celebrity worship? Whether the object of our affections are movie stars, athletes, poets or politicians (just look at how many Americans are getting a buzz off Sarah Palin and Barack Obama), we're hungry for information about them. We want to know what they're saying, what they're wearing, where they're going and whom they're with. Indeed, billion-dollar industries revolve around our indefatigable obsession with celebrities. And now new scientific research has found that celebri-crushes are not only common but maybe even healthy: a study published Sept. 10 suggests that the act of celebrity worship may be a boon to some people's self-esteem.

Shira Gabriel, a psychologist at the University at Buffalo, conducted a series of three studies on celebrity worship, focusing specifically on how admiration from afar may affect the admirer's self-esteem. "It was seven or eight years ago during the Michael Jackson trial," she says, "and I was fascinated by the people who were obsessed with him, who flew to the trial and made banners. I thought, What would bring somebody to do something like that?" One possible reason, which Gabriel decided to explore, was the vicarious pleasure that regular people get from following the lives of famous people; for some fans, there is something uniquely satisfying about carrying on an intense, albeit unrequited, relationship with celebrities. "Perhaps some people who don't feel good about themselves and are not able to get what they want out of a real relationship because of a fear of rejection can feel a connection with a celebrity and get something positive out of that," says Gabriel.

Though it borders on creepy, it's not an entirely surprising idea. And from a scientific point of view, it was intriguing to Gabriel: Could science actually measure the psychological benefit of celebrity worship? Gabriel enlisted a group of 348 college students, one-fifth of whom admitted to having a celebrity crush. She gave all the students an 11-item self-esteem questionnaire; their responses allowed researchers to rank the participants according to their baseline level of self-esteem. Next, she instructed the students to spend five minutes writing an essay about their favorite celebrity, an exercise designed to bring their fan feelings to the fore. Finally, all subjects were given the same 11 questions to reassess their self-esteem.

It turned out that the students who initially scored lowest on the self-esteem scale scored much higher on the second test — almost as high as those who started out with the highest self-esteem scores — after they wrote about their best-loved celebrities. "Because people form bonds in their mind with their favorite celebrities, they are able to assimilate the celebrity's characteristics in themselves and feel better about themselves when they think about that celebrity," says Gabriel. "And that is something these individuals can't do in real relationships because their fear of rejection keeps them from getting close to people."

But that doesn't mean you need TMZ.com to boost your morale. Gabriel is the first to acknowledge that her results are not a blanket endorsement of celebrity worship for mental stability. A little can be good, but a lot can become harmful — as stalking and more obsessive behaviors prove. Recent research has even found that celebrity worship can decrease a person's self-esteem because the endless admiration and yearning for a life and lifestyle that are out of reach may end up cementing one's feelings of isolation and inadequacy. Studies conducted in Britain found a range of celebrity-worship styles, from harmless adulation to debilitating addiction. Other research has documented a so-called celebrity-worship syndrome, in which the idolatry becomes all-consuming, much in the way that alcohol and drugs can define an addict's life. Initially, the lack of reciprocation in these relationships can be comforting and even, as Gabriel showed, helpful. But continued one-sided relationships can turn pathological. "We would never make the argument that these relationships can or should replace real relationships," she says.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the human brain is not well equipped to distinguish between real relationships and — as psychologists call them — "parasocial," or imagined ones. That means that some of the benefits people get from pseudo relationships with celebrities may be the same as those reaped from real friendships and real-life interactions. It's just a matter of degree. So it's O.K. to get caught up in Palinmania if her example makes you feel better about your chaotic life of juggling work and family — as long as you realize she won't be there to talk you through your next family crisis.

(See photos of George Clooney at play here.)