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Evolution and the Rock Star – Michael Jackson’s Death and the Psychology of Hero Worship
Michael Jackson’s death is a reminder of the vitality of America’s (and the world’s) celebrity cult. The intensity of the global public response prompts one to ask: why is society so deeply affected by the death of a man known for his eccentric 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 look to see if such 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 Ulysses to Elvis, great performers have commanded respect. Why;
Public performance can be understood as a form of genetic signaling. This is one reason why young animals play. When puppies frolic and run around playfully, they are sending very serious messages to future competitors and future mates about their genetic fitness. A puppy that is particularly large or quick to play communicates to 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 stands to reason, then, that young people enjoy the game (they do) and be big “shows” (they are). In fact, the whole point of the game, from an evolutionary perspective, is precisely to “show off” our extraordinary genetic ability. As we grow and mature into sexually active adults, we don’t really stop playing. Instead, our game becomes deadly serious (we begin to call it “work” or “art”) and many of us become even more extreme “shows”. We better. Our “performances” at work or in social situations are the most likely indicators of whether or not we will succeed in the reproductive market.
Although there are many ways to display genetic ability, people appear particularly attuned to verbal, musical or athletic performance. Our leading politicians, actors, musicians and sports stars are overwhelmingly admired. Verbal and musical displays likely evolved as a form of competitive play intended to signal intelligence. “Playing the dehan” and hip-hop dissing contests probably have roots in human behavior stretching back hundreds of thousands of years. As humans evolved into more intelligent creatures, the pressure of sexual selection placed great importance on displays associated with intelligence.
So when music superstars appear in public, they insert an ancient evolutionary key into a special lock in our brains. When the key is turned, we get an exhilarating rush of dopamine, the brain’s own version of cocaine, the ultimate feel-good drug.
The exciting thing about public performance is that it feels good to both the performer and the audience. Again, from an evolutionary point of view, this is to be expected. The artist brain is rewarded because evolution has provided a great stimulus (dopamine fix) to show off successfully whenever we can get away with it. Doing so maximizes our chances of attracting a desirable partner. The demo is nice. Performing in front of a large audience is a sensation large.
The audience also finds their minds rewarded by the development, but for different reasons. Why do we enjoy watching great shows? There are three reasons. First, spectacles are in a sense ‘didactic’. Humans are the most imitative species on earth. Much of our intelligence has to do with our ability to model and imitate adaptive behavior. It makes sense for us to be especially attentive to superior performance of any kind—the more we enjoy it, the more carefully we will attend to it and the more likely we are to learn from it. Second, if we feel in some way socially or emotionally connected to the performer, we are encouraged by the increased likelihood that we or our descendants will share the genetic bounty that this performer represents. Third, the more we ingratiate ourselves with the performer by exhibiting submissive and adoring behavior, the more likely we are to earn the performer’s appreciation and with it, the opportunity to mate with the performer and pass on his superior genes to our offspring. performer. .
It seems likely that humans are programmed by evolution to become either rock stars or groupies (or both). Which path we follow depends on our position in the competitive space of our generation’s gene pool. If we are the best singer or dancer of our generation, we will be tempted to perform: the rewards, both in terms of our brain’s dopamine pleasures and the attention of sexually attractive partners, could be enormous.
Unfortunately, while it makes sense—from an evolutionary perspective—for members of our species to gravitate toward musical genius, it doesn’t necessarily make sense from an individual perspective. Many have learned this the most concrete way, by marrying musicians (me). My eldest son inherited great musical talent, so my genes are happy. My genes never played into my wife’s operatic temperament (she’s a mezzo soprano), that was purely my own doing. Evolution promises us adorable children. he does not promise us a garden of roses.
Michael Jackson fans have been somewhat fooled by the development. Watching the Gloved One’s unusual twirls and masterful scream released entire oceans of their cerebral dopamine, but that didn’t change the fact that their hero was a very strange man.
Indeed, Michael Jackson’s life represents the very opposite of wisdom, the opposite of what one should admire or seek to emulate as a role model. Dopamine can be addictive, just like cocaine. Young Michael’s success as a child prodigy may have ruined his chances for happiness as an adult. He was never able to improve upon the Peter Pan-like ecstasies he achieved as a child star, so he spent his life in a perpetual effort to remain a child. This is already very unhealthy at age 20 or 30. At 40 or 50, it’s a sign of mental illness.
Evolution has left our brains vulnerable to misleading evolutionary keys. Fortunately, he has also gifted us with an alarm system called “reason.” We can learn to recognize our ancient evolutionary triggers for what they are – triggers to do things that may or may not be good for us. Nothing can stop that dopamine from flowing once our fingers start tapping to “I’m Bad,” but our can stop us from taking the whole thing too seriously. And it should.
We should not underestimate the pleasures and delights of attending spectacles. Whether we’re cheering in a sports stadium or at a jazz concert, our enjoyment is deep and real. We should indulge in this joy – it is one of the highlights of the human experience. However, we should look for role models in the people we really know and trust around us, not in music superstars, however gifted they may be.
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