Evolution and the Rock Star: The Death of Michael Jackson and the Psychology of the Hero Cult
Michael Jackson’s death is a reminder of the vibrancy of America’s (and the world’s) cult of celebrity. The intensity of the global public response leads one to wonder: why is society so deeply affected by the death of a person who was known for his bizarre behavior and questionable judgment? Evolutionary psychology provides a useful perspective.
When evolutionary psychologists observe that a behavior is widespread and common in a particular species, they first seek to find out whether the behavior is “adaptive,” that is, reproductively beneficial. Hero worship is interesting in this respect because we find versions of it in all societies. Our earliest recorded literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, dealt primarily with the lives of two heroes. From Odysseus to Elvis, great artists have commanded reverence. Why?
Public performance can be understood as a form of genetic signaling. This is one of the reasons why young animals play. When puppies romp and playfully run around, they are sending serious messages to future competitors and future mates about their genetic fitness. A pup that is especially big or quick at play communicates with competitors (“you won’t want to mess with me when I grow up”) and future mates (“my genes are the best, you’ll have great kids with me”).
It makes sense, therefore, for youngsters to enjoy the game (they do) and be big “showoffs” (they are). In fact, the whole purpose of the game, from an evolutionary perspective, is precisely to “show off” our exceptional genetic fitness. As we age and become sexually active adults, we don’t really stop playing. Instead, our game gets deadly serious (we start calling it “work” or “art”), and many of us become even more extreme “smugs.” It will be better than us. Our “performances” at work or at social events are the most likely indicators of whether or not we will succeed in the reproductive market.
Although there are many ways to display genetic fitness, humans seem to be especially attuned to verbal, musical, or athletic performance. Our top politicians, actors, musicians, and sports stars receive overwhelming adulation. Verbal and musical displays likely evolved as a form of competitive play intended to signal intelligence. “Playing the dozens” and hip-hop contests probably have roots in human behavior going back hundreds of thousands of years. As humans evolved into more intelligent creatures, the pressure of sexual selection put a premium on displays correlated with intelligence.
Therefore, when musical superstars perform in public, they are inserting an ancient evolutionary key into a special lock in our brains. When the key turns, we get an exhilarating rush of dopamine, the brain’s version of cocaine, the latest feel-good drug.
The fascinating thing about public performance is that it feels good for both the artist and the audience. Again, from an evolutionary perspective, this is to be expected. The actor’s brain is being rewarded because evolution has provided us with a great stimulus (a dose of dopamine) so that we can show off successfully as long as we can get away with it. If he does, he maximizes our chances of attracting a desirable mate. Showing off feels good. Showing off in front of a large audience feels great.
The audience also finds his brain rewarded for evolution, but for different reasons. Why do we enjoy watching exceptional performances? There are three reasons. First of all, spectacular performances are, in a sense, “instructive.” Humans are the most imitative species on earth. Much of our intelligence has to do with our ability to model and mimic adaptive behavior. It makes sense that we’d be especially vigilant about superior performance of any kind: the more we enjoy it, the more we’ll pay attention to it, and the more likely we’ll learn something from it. Second, if we feel that we are socially or emotionally attached to the actor, we are encouraged by the increased possibility that we or our offspring will share in the genetic bounty represented by that actor. Third, the more we ingratiate ourselves with the actor, since by displaying adoring and submissive behavior, the more likely we are to earn the performer’s esteem and with it the opportunity to mate with him and endow our offspring with the superior genes of the artist. .
It seems likely that humans have been programmed by evolution to become either rock stars or groupies (or both). Which path we take depends on where we stand in the competitive space of our generation’s gene pool. If we’re the best singers or dancers of our generation, we’ll be tempted to act: the rewards, both in terms of dopamine delights in our brains and attention from sexually attractive partners, could be huge.
Unfortunately, while it makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective, for members of our species to be drawn to musical genius, it doesn’t necessarily make sense from an individual perspective. Many people have learned this in the most concrete way, by marrying musicians (I did). My eldest son inherited exceptional musical talent, so my genes are happy. My genes never cared about my wife’s operatic temperament (she’s a mezzo-soprano), that was purely my business. Evolution promises us lovable children; does not promise us a garden of roses.
Michael Jackson fans have been fooled to some degree by evolution. Watching the Gloved One’s amazing turns and master chant released oceans of brain dopamine from him, but that didn’t change the fact that his hero was a very rare man.
In fact, Michael Jackson’s life represents the very opposite of wisdom, the opposite of what one should look up to or try to emulate in a role model. Dopamine rushes can be addictive, just like cocaine. Young Michael’s success as a child prodigy may have destroyed his chances for happiness as an adult. He could never get over the Peter Pan ecstasies he achieved as a child star, so he spent his life in a perpetual attempt to remain a child. This is already very unhealthy in your 20s or 30s. At 40 or 50, it’s a sign of mental illness.
Evolution has left our brains vulnerable to tricky evolutionary cues. Fortunately, it has also provided us with an alarm system called “reason”. We can learn to recognize our ancient evolutionary triggers for precisely what they are: stimuli to do things that may or may not be good for us. Nothing can stop the dopamine from flowing once our fingers start snapping “I’m Bad,” but our reason may prevent us from taking the whole thing too seriously. and should
We must not belittle the pleasures and delights of participation in spectacles. Whether we find ourselves cheering at a sports stadium or a jazz concert, our delight is deep and real. We should enjoy this joy: it is one of the highlights of the human experience. However, we should look to the people we really know and trust around us for role models, not the musical superstars, no matter how talented.