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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 reaction leads one to ask: why is society so affected by the death of a person who was known for strange 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 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 Odysseus to Elvis, great performers have inspired reverence. 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 competitors and future mates about their genetic fitness. A puppy that is particularly large or fast at play is communicating with competitors (“you won’t want to mess with me when I grow up”) and future mates (“my genes are the best – you will have children of wonderful with me “).
Therefore, it makes sense that young people enjoy the game (they do) and be big “shows” (they are). In fact, the whole purpose of the game, from an evolutionary perspective, is precisely to “show off” our extraordinary genetic ability. As we grow older and become sexually active adults, we don’t stop playing. Instead, our game becomes deadly serious (we start calling it “work” or “art”) and many of us become even more extreme show-offs. It would be better. Our “performance” at work or in social situations is the most likely indicator of whether or not we will succeed in the reproductive market.
Although there are many ways to display genetic fitness, humans seem particularly attuned to verbal, musical, or athletic performance. Our leading politicians, actors, musicians and sports stars receive overwhelming admiration. Verbal and musical displays likely evolved as a form of competitive play intended to signal intelligence. Playing the tens and dissing hip-hop contests probably have roots in human behavior that stretch back hundreds of thousands of years. As humans evolved into more intelligent creatures, the pressure of sexual selection gave a premise to intelligence-related displays.
So when music superstars perform in public, they are inserting an ancient evolutionary key into a special lock in our brains. When the switch is turned, we get an exhilarating burst of dopamine, the brain’s own version of cocaine, the ultimate feel-good drug.
The fascinating thing about public performance is that it feels good to both the performer and the audience. Again, from an evolutionary perspective, this is to be expected. The performer brain is being rewarded because evolution has provided a huge stimulus (a dopamine fix) for us to perform successfully whenever we can get away with it. Doing so maximizes our chances of attracting a desirable mate. Looking feels good. The feeling of performing in front of a large audience big.
The audience also finds its brain rewarded by evolution, but for different reasons. Why do we like to watch extraordinary shows? There are three reasons. First, 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 imitate adaptive behavior. It makes sense for us to be particularly attentive to superior performance of any kind—the more we enjoy it, the more closely we’ll pay attention to it, and the more likely we’ll learn something from it. Second, if we feel that we are somehow socially or emotionally connected to the performer, we are encouraged by the increased possibility that we or our descendants will share in the genetic bounty represented by that performer. Third, the more we please ourselves with the performer, by exhibiting submissive and adoring behavior, the more likely we are to earn the performer’s appreciation, and with it, a chance to mate with the performer and endowed our offspring with superior performer genes. .
It seems likely that humans are programmed by evolution to become either rock stars or bands (or both). Which path we follow depends on our location within the competing gene pool space of our generation. 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 mates, can be great.
Unfortunately, while it makes sense—from an evolutionary perspective—for members of our species to be attracted to musical genius, it doesn’t necessarily make sense from an individual perspective. Many people have learned this the most concrete way, by marrying musicians (I did). My eldest son inherited incredible musical talent, so my genes are happy. My genes have never been concerned with my wife’s operatic temperament (she’s a mezzo-soprano), it’s just been my thing. Evolution promises us adorable children; it does not promise us a garden of roses.
Michael Jackson fans have been fooled by evolution to some extent. Watching the Gloved One’s strange twirls and masterful petting released 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 in a role model. The dopamine boost 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 perfect 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 the age of 20 or 30. At age 40 or 50, it is a sign of mental illness.
Evolution has left our brains vulnerable to evolutionary cheat switches. Fortunately, it has also provided us with an alarm system called “reason”. We can learn to recognize our ancient evolutionary triggers for exactly what they are—incentives to do things that may or may not be good for us. Nothing can stop that dopamine from flowing once our fingers start snapping to “I’m Bad,” but our reason can stop taking us all seriously. And it should.
We should not underestimate the pleasures and delights of attending spectacles. Whether we find ourselves cheering in a sports stadium or at a jazz concert, our joy is deep and genuine. We should delight 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 talented.
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#Evolution #Rock #Star #Michael #Jacksons #Death #Psychology #Hero #Worship