Science Explains Obsession With the Kardashians, Oprah, and Elon Musk (and How Your Business Can Use It)

Neuroscience explains why we’re fascinated with celebrity personalities, and how to use the same approach to grow a following for your brand.

Why do we follow the people we admire? What is it that makes us evangelize for them, imitate them, and even obey them? And how can you build your brand to attract such raving fans?

Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes captured the hearts and minds of millions. Call it “The Oprah Obsession.” Why did people respond so strongly? The answer lies in our DNA.

From Elon Musk to Warren Buffett to Arianna Huffington, we’re fascinated by the most powerful celebrities, CEOs and sports stars.

To understand why, let’s go back a few million years. You’re about to learn a thing or two from hairy-backed celebrities who drag their knuckles on the ground.

Why We Play Follow the Leader
The next time you’re in the grocery store checkout line and find yourself inexplicably mesmerized by a cover story of a smiling athlete, billionaire mogul, or movie star, blame your DNA. We’re fascinated by power.

No matter where we rank on the social food chain, no matter which group with whom we align, our alpha members fascinate us. Programed deep into our social code is a need to “follow the leader,” to find alpha idols and fixate upon them. Our obsession with powerful people is far older than that issue of People magazine; in fact, we inherited it from our hairier primate ancestors.

Duke University neurobiologist Dr. Michael Platt proved this by offering thirsty rhesus monkeys a choice: a drink of their favorite beverage, or an opportunity to look at photos of dominant monkeys in their own pack, the ones with food, power and sexual magnetism. Platt dubbed these the “celebrity” monkeys, the Kanye Wests and Kardashians of the group.

So strong was the fascination with these celebrities that the monkeys chose photo-viewing over relieving their thirst. Even the most celebrated monkeys were fascinated by images of their fellow celebrity monkeys.

Similarly, our brain’s innate fascination with “following the leader” sets us all up to be spellbound by the most powerful and authoritative in any group. We see this in sports fan hysteria, high school cliques, and other group activities that grip our attention.

In these situations, we become fascinated by star athletes, celebrities, or whomever in our social circle leads discussions and makes decisions.

The word “fascinate” comes from the Latin fascinare: to bewitch, or beguile, making your listener powerless to resist.

Ancient cultures realized that fascination had the dangerous power of holding people captive. They protected their children from this evil force with amulets and ceremonies. But when you understand how the world sees you, and you know how you can be fascinating, you can use this “force” in a positive way, too.

Generating loyalty for your brand may mean grabbing the reins.
In competitive and commoditized markets it can be difficult to stand out. By calling the shots, and delivering your messages with confidence, you’ll be recognized as a leader and gain the respect of your audience, your clients and your staff.

Within my own business, I define team and project goals (and I must admit they can be pretty ambitious). My team is hyper-aware of the confidence I have in them because I give clear expectations, and don’t even consider the possibility of falling short.

After outlining macro-level recommendations, I find ways to give the team real ownership of the project. During a recent product launch, I outlined a schedule for meeting high-level sales goals. At that point, I stepped aside and empowered other team members to develop the individual pieces of the campaign to get us to the goals. The team surpassed our final goal (and I surprised them with an ample bonus).

Consider ways that you can set the standard. If you are an independent bookseller, publish your own authoritative 100 Best Books list. If you sell cosmetics, outline a prescriptive process for applying your products. Identify the unique ways that your brand excels, and highlight them in your messaging.

When you’re the authority in your field, you own it. And the masses will be fascinated.

A version of this article was originally published on

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About the author

Sally Hogshead

Sally skyrocketed to the top of the advertising world in her early 20s, fascinating millions of consumers for clients such as MINI Cooper and Coca-Cola. Since then, she’s published two New York Times bestsellers on the science of fascination, and is one of only 172 living members in the Speaker Hall of Fame. Over a million professionals have taken the Fascination Advantage® personality test to discover how others perceive their communication.

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