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How the 'fame motive' makes you want to be a star

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
The need for recognition isn't always negative but can get out of hand, says psychologist James Bailey.
The need for recognition isn't always negative but can get out of hand, says psychologist James Bailey.
  • Pew study: 51 percent of young people said fame was most important for generation
  • Getting attention gives some people a rush of Adrenaline, creating a "high" feeling
  • A new book says the proportion of Americans whose primary motive is fame hasn't changed
  • Fame seeking may come from need to belong, be accepted in a group

(CNN) -- As a large silver balloon floated its way over Colorado, millions of Americans spent hours glued to their televisions wondering if 6-year-old Falcon Heene, assumed to be inside the contraption, was alive.

That night the boy, who had actually been hiding in his family's house, was asked on CNN's "Larry King Live" why he'd stayed hidden.

"You guys said we did it for the show," the boy told his father, Richard Heene.

In the era of reality TV, YouTube, and social media "friends" and "followers," it seems that everyone wants to be a star. People will perform outrageous acts on camera and revel in the attention of strangers.

But what, then, is driving this need for attention from thousands -- or even millions -- of spectators?

The desire to be famous comes from a basic human need to be part of a group, said Orville Gilbert Brim, psychologist and author of the new book "Look at Me! The Fame Motive From Childhood to Death," out this month from the University of Michigan Press.

"It's a yearning to belong somewhere that causes us to seek the fulfillment of attention and approval of strangers," he said.

The Heenes are no strangers to television. They had been chosen for the 100th episode of the reality TV show "Wife Swap," which Lifetime recently announced it would not reair.

Video: Ex: Heene used 'mental warfare'
Video: Bursting the bubble

Falcon's mother told authorities last Friday that the balloon episode was a hoax. Robert Thomas, who worked with Richard Heene last spring, told CNN he used to write down Heene's ideas and proposals for reality-show pitches, one of which closely resembled the balloon incident.

Monday, investigators presented their case against the boy's parents to representatives of the district attorney's office of Larimer County, Colorado, according to CNN affiliate KUSA.

The desire for attention may date back to the days of early humans, who lived in small groups. Those who were not approved by a group that protected all of its members would genetically disappear and die off, he said.

"You're left with the population in which almost everybody wants acceptance and approval," he said.

Wanting to feel special and sensation-seeking are probably top motives for trying to become famous, said Susan Fiske, professor of psychology at Princeton University.

Getting a lot of attention gives some people a rush of adrenaline, the "fight or flight" chemical, said James Bailey, psychologist and leadership professor at George Washington University's School of Business. When people experience this "high," they want to have it again and will engage in sometimes extreme or illegal behaviors to try to replicate the feeling.

This need for recognition isn't necessarily negative, and studies have shown that everyone has it in varying degrees, although there is some cultural variation, Bailey said. It becomes problematic when the desire for fame becomes dysfunctional and all-encompassing, he said in an email.

The quest for fame may get out of hand when sudden fame -- like a sudden chunk of money for lottery winners -- has an "intoxicating effect," and suddenly people can't imagine life without fame, he said.

It ends up being kind of a damaged life if you seek to be famous because you can never get there, really, and you can never can get rid of it, and it spoils your days trying.
--Orville Gilbert Brim

"It shifts one's self-perception of who and what one is and what one deserves, and there's little we humans won't do to perpetuate our positive self-concepts," he said.

Still, some surveys show that it's a minority of the population that places fame ahead of all other priorities in life.

Brim examined data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research in Storrs, Connecticut, on how important becoming famous is to people. The surveys were conducted over the past four decades. Consistently, about 2 percent of respondents said that fame is the most important thing in life.

That means the proportion of people whose primary life motivation is fame isn't getting larger over time, even though opportunities for people to try for their 15 minutes have exploded through the Internet and reality TV shows, Brim said.

But there is a perception that far greater numbers of people are fame-seekers. A 2006 survey from the Pew Research Center aimed at 18- to 25-year-olds found that 51 percent cited being famous as either the first or second most important life goals for their generation.

Fiske and Bailey said the plethora of opportunities for minor fame on the Internet probably has made more people want to be recognized in that way. "Access to the rarefied air of celebrity is more available," Bailey said.

Fame by way of YouTube and reality television is usually temporary, unlike honors for doing good deeds, Brim said. The number of great achievements to bring about fame have not increased -- what have increased are the "look at me" spectacles that have no other goal than to draw attention, he said.

A desire for fame may also come from being rejected early in life, perhaps by parents, Brim said. But the problem is that no matter what level of acceptance these people achieve, it's never enough.

"That need remains unfulfilled and they can't handle it, and so they turn to trying to become famous as a substitute for the satisfaction for this basic need," he said.

Experts agree that celebrity culture also offers something for people to feel connected to, although Bailey cautioned that recognition is different from relationships. Still, the rise of Internet portals on which people can become minor celebrities are partly driven by the need to create and maintain relationships, he said.

The fame motive and the desires for money and power are distinct, although they are often connected, he said. The fame motive can be a way to get money and power, and vice versa, Brim said.

Many people whose primary motivation in life is fame are met with much disappointment because they always want more, and few can be recognized as widely as they want, he said.

"It ends up being kind of a damaged life if you seek to be famous because you can never get there, really, and you can never can get rid of it, and it spoils your days trying," he said.