The death of Michael Jackson is a reminder of the vitality of the cult of celebrity in America (and the world). The intensity of the global public reaction begs the question: Why is society so deeply affected by the death of a person known for bizarre behavior and questionable judgment? Evolutionary psychology offers a helpful perspective.
When evolutionary psychologists observe that a behavior is widespread and common in a particular species, they first try to determine whether that behavior is “adaptive,” that is, beneficial from a reproductive perspective. Hero worship is interesting in this regard because we find versions of it in all societies. Our earliest recorded literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was primarily concerned with the lives of two heroes. From Odysseus to Elvis, great artists have inspired reverence. Why?
Public performances can be understood as a form of genetic signaling. That is one reason why young animals play. When puppies frolic and run around playfully, they send very serious messages to future competitors and future mates about their genetic fitness. A puppy that is particularly big or quick at play communicates with competitors (“You won’t want to mess with me when I grow up”) and future buddies (“My genes are the best – you’ll have great kids with me “).
It makes sense, then, that teens love to play (they do) and are great ‘show-offs’ (they are). In fact, from an evolutionary point of view, the whole purpose of the game is precisely to “show off” our exceptional genetic fitness. As we get older and mature into sexually active adults, we don’t really stop playing. Instead, our game gets dead serious (we start calling it “work” or “art”), and many of us become even more extreme “showoffs.” We better. Our “achievements” at work or at social events are the most likely indicators of whether or not we will be successful in the reproductive market.
Although there are many ways to show genetic fitness, people seem particularly attuned to verbal, musical, or athletic performance. Our top politicians, actors, musicians and sports stars receive overwhelming recognition. Verbal and musical performances likely evolved as a form of competitive play intended to signal intelligence. “Playing the dozens” and hip-hop dissing contests likely have roots in human behavior going back hundreds of thousands of years. As humans evolved into more intelligent creatures, the pressures of sexual selection placed an emphasis on representations correlated with intelligence.
So when musical superstars perform in public, they insert an ancient evolutionary key into a special lock in our brains. When the key is turned, we get an intoxicating blast of dopamine, the brain’s version of cocaine, the ultimate feel-good drug.
The fascinating thing about performing in public is that it feels good for both the performer and the audience. Again, this is to be expected from an evolutionary point of view. The performer’s brain is rewarded because evolution has provided a great stimulus (a dopamine fix) for us to successfully brag whenever we can get away with it. By doing this, we maximize our chances of attracting a desirable partner. Showing off feels good. Showing yourself in front of a big audience feels Great.
Audiences also find that their brains are rewarded by evolution, but for different reasons. Why do we like to watch extraordinary performances? There are three reasons. First, spectacular performances are “educational” in a sense. 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 should be particularly alert to excellence of any kind – the more we enjoy it, the more closely we’ll pay attention, and the more likely we’ll learn from it. Second, when we feel that we are somehow socially or emotionally connected to the performer, we are encouraged by the increased chance that we or our offspring will share in the genetic bounty that that performer represents. Third, the more we flatter ourselves with the performer, e.g. For example, the more submissive and admiring behavior we exhibit, the more likely we are to earn the performer’s esteem and with it the chance to mate with the performer and endow our offspring with the performer’s superior genes.
It seems likely that humans were programmed by evolution to turn into either rock stars or groupies (or both). Which path we take depends on our position in the competitive space of our generation’s gene pool. If we’re the best singer or dancer of our generation, we’ll be tempted to perform: the rewards, both in terms of our brain’s dopamine debauchery and the attention of sexually attractive partners, could be enormous.
Unfortunately, while it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that members of our species would be attracted to musical genius, it doesn’t necessarily make sense from an individual perspective. Many people have learned this most concretely by marrying musicians (I did). My eldest son inherited exceptional musical talent, so my genes are lucky. My genes never cared about my wife’s operatic temperament (she’s a mezzo-soprano), that was just my business. Evolution promises us adorable children; it promises us no rose garden.
To some extent, Michael Jackson fans have been tricked by evolution. Watching the gloved man’s eerie spins and masterful hum unleashed oceans of her cerebral dopamine, but that didn’t take away from the fact that her hero was a very odd man.
In fact, the life of Michael Jackson represents the polar opposite of wisdom, the opposite of what should be admired or emulated in a role model. Dopamine rushes can be addictive, just like cocaine. Young Michael’s success as a child prodigy may have ruined his chances of a happy adult life. He was never able to match the Peter Pan-like ecstasies he achieved as a child star, so he spent his life trying to stay a kid. That’s very unhealthy even at the age of 20 or 30. At 40 or 50 it is a sign of mental illness.
Evolution has made our brains vulnerable to fallacious evolutionary keys. Luckily, it also provided us with an alert system called Sanity. We can learn to recognize our ancient evolutionary triggers for exactly 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 to “I’m bad” except our mind can stop us from taking this too seriously. And it should.
We should not belittle the joys and joys of attending spectacles. Whether we’re cheering in a sports stadium or at a jazz concert, our joy is deep and real. We should surrender to this joy – it is one of the peaks of human experience. However, we should look for role models in the people around us we really know and trust, not in musical superstars, no matter how talented.
Thanks to Guillermo Jimenez | #Evolution #Rock #Star #Michael #Jacksons #Death #Psychology #Hero #Worship