Tuesday, September 23

Celebrity Crushes OR A Really Long, Scientific, Impassioned Defense of Being Joyful

This is a companion post to something that the illustrious ShortAndAngry1 wrote.  You can read it here.  Or you can be a less read person and just read what I have to say about crushes.  Learn about love, after the jump!

The idea of this post comes from that post that ShortAndAngry1 wrote because I was so excited by her expanded ideas that followed an exchange we had.  I use the term celebrity pretty lightly since I have a crush I refer to as my NPR husband and he's not exactly on the cover of Vanity Fair. But I think he should be.  The initial conversation we had was sparked by me wanting to change the culture of shame around expressing love for someone when that love is not reciprocated (including admitting that to one's self).  For example, Chris Evans has no idea who I am.  Dictionary.com defines crush as:
  1. an intense but usually short-lived infatuation.
Well, that definition is stupid and doesn't work for me because I don't think that crushes 
are usually short lived.  Of course they can be, but most people have at least one or two people they're had that crush on for forever.  Plus, they aren't always intense.  Here's my definition:

  1. An intense desire to have a relationship with someone (or an idea of someone) different from the present relationship. 
I think that definition covers a lot.  Because it's not that I want to date Chris Evans, it's that I want to imagine I could date Chris Evans.  I could never maintain a dating relationship with Chris Evans.  I have an idea in my head about dating him and it's very lovely and I visit that idea often, particularly in soul crushingly dull staff meetings.  A different kind of relationship might be as intense as a torrid intimate relationship or as simple as sharing ideas on Twitter.  My definition also covers something I find very important about celebrity crushes; I don't actually know Chris Evans and the idea of him I date in my head is obviously different than who is as a whole person.  Parts of it I'm sure are accurate, his public persona is, after all, part of him.  But I'm not so naive as to believe that his public person is all of who he is as a human being.  That's the version of crush I'm sticking with here.  This isn't the simply the "Wow, they are so hot!" kind of crush, based purely on physical attraction and libido.  A crush takes at least one step beyond the beautiful body.

From a psychological perspective, crushes like this are an anomaly.  Research tells us that we like people who are physically close to us; I am more likely to be attracted to a person when they're my neighbor than when they live across town.  (This research holds up in experiments even when college students were shown profiles of the same person, the person who lived closest got the highest ratings.)  I'm not in close proximity to Chris Evans.  "...We are attracted to others whose presence is rewarding to us," (Miller, Perlman, & Brehm, 2007, pp.75).  Those rewards may be directly from the person (I get no direct rewards from Evans) or indirect rewards due to the crush's presence (I have never been in the presence of Evans).  We equate that which is beautiful with that which is good (though it goes the other way, too) and while most celebrities are highly attractive (indeed attractiveness is helpful in achieving success), some are not.  Ok, in this example, Chris Evans is beautiful and not an anomaly.  We are more likely to like someone who likes us.  Chris Evans has no idea who I am.  Finally, we are more likely to like someone who is similar to us or has similar interests.  This helps explain why crushes result in people knowing what blood type their crush is or watching every interview in order to find where they match.  Another psychological principle plays into finding similar interests: confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is when someone is more likely to interpret or seek out information that confirms their belief and will in fact unconsciously block out information to the contrary.  Chris Evans likes beer! He's just like me!  Confirmation bias might also be why, as ShortAndAngry1 questioned, some people don't feel shame about making a pass at a celebrity crush-- even in front of that person's spouse.

This Chris Evans crush has a lot working against it.  Is my love so pure that it defies all science!?  No.  Let's look at those again.  First of all, fear of loss or rejection can actually enhance feelings of love (more on lovely love below) (Brizendine, 2010).  It can be argued that mediums like movies and television are intimate and that when we are watching someone on our living room screen, they are in fact in close proximity.  On demand, even!  Repeated exposure is another element in attraction and so I'm digging my own hole deeper when I rewatch Captain America and Puncture.  There are systems in the brain (dopaminergic and opioidergic) which actually fuel binge watching behavior (and binge eating behavior for that matter, they're supposed to remind us to eat all the foods we need and stuff) by giving our brains drugs that make us enjoy things and want more of that good feeling.  I need to keep falling in love with Chris Evans.  This ties into human behavior 101; the cognitive triangle.  Humans have thoughts, thoughts produce feelings, feelings are what motivate behaviors, and the more we do a behavior the more reinforcing thoughts we have about it.  This last step is sometimes also referred to as "sad because I cried" theory because people who feel happy and then cry on command actually produce chemical changes in their brain as if they were genuinely sad and that produces a change in their emotional state.  Thought: I like Chris Evans. Feeling: Swooning. Behavior: Looking up tumblr gifs of Chris Evans.

Please enjoy this "smash hit" interlude.

While I get no direct rewards from Chris Evans, I do get rewarded with friendship and companionship which have grown out of my Doctor Who and Avengers fandom.  There are also drugs, as discussed later.  I would also argue that visual stimuli are a reward and so are funny or entertaining moments from watching all those interviews.  Beautiful is good and he's very beautiful.  He seems like a good guy and that makes him all the more beautiful.  Liking someone who likes us is tricky, but often with entertainers they are beholden to their fans, "Thank you, we couldn't have done it without you," etc. and those kinds of comments certainly enter the public domain regularly.  Platforms like Twitter also influence this; when a favorite band retweeted me, my tiny black heart went pitter-patter very fast.  These types of barely there interactions (called parasocial interactions) are also why confirmation bias is running rampant in celebrity crushes; we are very eager to read into things what we want to get from them.  Likewise, positive illusions, which are typically applied to one's self or close relationships, are when people take some accurate knowledge and mix it with idealized information.  This goes beyond the positive reframe or optimism, it's the unconscious but categorical method by which our brains push away or minimize one's shortcomings while over exaggerating their desirable qualities.

Why do people get shamed or feel shame for investing in these crushes?  Why is that type of negative response part of our culture?  Why do many people (mostly adults) hide these crushes?  Larsen & Zubernis (2013) suggest that for women, the shame of a fangirl is tied to the shame associated with open sexuality and for men, it's tied to the stereotype of a fanboy who is a virgin still living with his parents.  Further, if it's true, as Yalom suggested, that we all need validation about sex, a fandom provides that validation in many ways over and over (usually).  A friend suggested the shame is because crushes are juvenile and those who suffer them as adults are not mature individuals.  I've uncovered a writing about crushes from 1933 and the author discusses crushes as things children have for adult idols of the same gender as part of typical human development.  Despite that divergence from this explanation of crushes, the writing covers the same modern problems; crushees being annoyed by the slavish devotion of crushers, parents mocking their children's crushes and how this further fuels devotion, that fantastical crushes can provide more fulfilling emotions than confirmed relationships (On having 'crushes', 1933).  While the article is attributed to Anonymous, a related article from the following year in 1934 was published by Hurlock & Klein and discusses these same types of issues before expanding into research results of a survey regarding crushes of school age children and finding that when children are exposed to coed environments the object of their crushes also tends to become hetero rather than homo sexual. (If you can find it, the article is fascinating reading on 'symptoms' of crushes, such as being tongue-tied in their presence, and adopting elements of the crush, such as their diction or mannerisms.)   

Larsen & Zubernis (2013) wrote a book, Fangasm, on the fan culture of Supernatural and note that Western Culture seems to shy away from anyone or anything who appears too exuberant.  They make the observation that because of availability bias people tend to assume the worst of fans (an crushes) because it can conjure up the extreme examples which have made their way into the media or stand out across years of our life.  Despite those challenges, Larsen & Zubernis also point out that researchers are backing away from the idea that all fans are pathological.  A 2012 study happily failed to replicate the findings of a study from a decade earlier which asserted high celebrity adoration meant a lower cognitive ability or IQ (McCutcheon, Griffith, Aruguete, & Haight).  Fangasm also recounts the story of a woman who runs into the then girlfriend, now wife, of her celebrity crush in a bathroom... while the woman is holding meticulously hand-altered Barbies turned action figures of her crush.  The shame she feels is severe; the girlfriend would never make something like this, she assumes.  The woman goes on to embrace her fan feelings and fan behaviors and it becomes a parable about self acceptance and accepting the joy in your heart.

I don't have a definitive answer about the shame of having an unrequited love.  What I can do is give you some really good arguments about why people shouldn't and this great quote from Jim Henson.
"Watch out for each other. Love everyone and forgive everyone, including yourself. Forgive your anger. Forgive your guilt. Your shame. Your sadness. Embrace and open up your love, your joy, your truth, and most especially your heart."
I'm going to refer to having a crush as being in love, because the principles of love apply to the early stages of love, like having a crush on someone.  If you're wondering whether your love is pathological, there's a psychometric measure for that: Celebrity Attitude Scale (scoring on the second page, my love of Evans is not pathological!).

First of all, it feels really, really good to be in love.  Shut up, obviously love hurts, love stinks, loved you so hard it broke my heart, yada, yada, yada.  Louie had a great dialogue about how someone should be glad to have their heart broken, which shined a light on something I have been trying to figure out for some time: you should be happy because when you have your heart broken it's a big feeling.  You can't have your heart broken unless you're passionate, in it, invested.  What a gift it is to be passionate, in it, invested.  That's part of why people are drawn to fandom culture, you get to be part of community and experience those feelings, taking the bad with that creation of good feelings.  A buddy gave me the perfect example, his love of Marilyn Monroe; the ultimate unrequited love, one in which the crush is dead.  Knowing that admiration can't possible lead to more (at least terrestrially) still drives people to admire and yearn for more because it feels good to care and good to love.

There are neurotransmitters in the brain which are cranked up to 11 during the early stages of love and when we can't have what we want, just like a drug withdrawal, we crave it (Brizendine, 2006).  Oxytocin and dopamine are the culprits here.  Oxytocin is 'the love hormone' which makes it feel so good when we get something we have been seeking, thanks to dopamine.  Orgasms reinforce this bond harder (hahaha) and in fact, sex creates a chemical storm comparable to a cocaine high (Brizendine, 2010).  When your tummy does that little flip-flop of they are so cute/funny/hot/right/dirty/sexy! you're getting a burst of oxytocin.  With tangible relationships, the more time you spend with the person, the less the drugs are needed to encourage your bond; this is probably part of the reason crushes can feel so good to sustain over long periods of time, we are still being drugged by our brains.  Watching all those youtube videos and scrolling endless pages on tumblr is drug seeking behavior based on the biological urge to partner with someone desirable.

Unless you score as pathological on that Celebrity Attitude Scale, that feeling is good.  That feeling is mostly harmless and like free drugs.  Except, you know, harmless instead of teeth-rotty.  That feeling leads people to explore new things.  To accept new things.  To learn new things about themselves and the world!  That feeling is love and love is a comfort-- even when we're sad about it we return to embrace that feeling of love and get wrapped up in it.  Whether it's rewatching Doctor Who, fantasizing about Chris Evans, imagining baking Dean Winchester a pie, talking about those lyrics with Rhett Miller and Ryan Adams... it's love.  It's joy and it's comfort.  Even on my worst day I can take a dose of those drugs and it may not change my mood but it does make me feel better.  My beloved Pop Culture Happy Hour did a great episode on pop culture comfort food, which is down this alley.

Don't be ashamed of your crushes, celebrity or otherwise.  Don't shame other people for their crushes, either.  Embrace your own joy, even when it's unrequited love there is so much that we get out of it and remember that it brings that oxytocin rush for others, too.  We deserve it.  You deserve it.  Feel. Good.  Let your dopamine and oxytocin exercise your heartstrings.  I'm going to part with you on a sappy quote from one of my favorite sappy books, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman:
"Always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder. Keep rosemary by your garden gate. Add pepper to your mashed potatoes. Plant roses and lavender, for luck. Fall in love whenever you can.”


Brizendine, L. (2006). The female brain. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Brizendine, L. (2010). The male brain. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Hurlock, E. B., & Klein, E. R. (1934). Adolescent 'crushes.'. Child Development, 563-80. doi:10.2307/1125797

Larsen, K. & Zubernis, L. (2013). Fangasm: Supernatural fangirls. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.

McCutcheon, L. E., Griffith, J. D., Aruguete, M. S., & Haight, E. (2012). Cognitive Ability and Celebrity Worship Revisited. North American Journal Of Psychology, 14(2), 383-392.

Miller, R. S., Perlman, D., & Brehm, S. S. (Eds.) (2007). Intimate relationships. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

On having 'crushes'. (1933). The voice of experience (pp. 99-105). New York, NY, US: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers. doi:10.1037/13329-015

*I nabbed all the gifs from tumblr