Have you ever wondered why there is so much public mourning for celebrity deaths?  For example, the recent deaths of Nipsey Hussle, actor Luke Perry and the cancer diagnosis of game show host Alex Trebek left many people feeling very sad at the misfortune of someone they had never met.  We asked some social and personality psychologists to help us understand why these events (like the deaths of Elvis, Prince, Princess Diana, David Bowie, and many others before them) have such a strong effect on people.  Why do we mourn for those we have never met?

Our experts suggested that six different psychological processes may be at play.

1.  Celebrities sometimes feel like our friends: The role of parasocial bonds
One reason we feel sad when bad things happen to celebrities is because they feel like our friends.  Dr. Melanie Green of SUNY Buffalo points out that people form parasocial bonds with celebrities. Parasocial bonds are "one-way" relationships with celebrities; many people feel strongly connected to movie and television stars, popular musicians, news broadcasters, on-air meteorologists, and others even though no true interaction occurs. Believe it or not, parasocial bonds are actually pretty normal: many of us have them. Even though we know logically that celebrities are not really our “friends,” because we see them so often and have so much access to information about them, they sometimes feel like our friends. That can be handy when they accomplish great things and we can feel proud of and connected to them.  But it also means that when they get sick or die we grieve them much like we would a real friend.

2.  Celebrities are ties to our youth: The role of nostalgia
We don’t have to have a parasocial bond with a celebrity to feel sad when they die.  We might feel grief because of nostalgia.  According to Dr. Constantine Sedikides from the University of Southampton, people report being nostalgic for people who were important to them during their childhood or adolescence.   Through nostalgic reflection, these people become part of who we are.  So, when they pass away, we can feel like we lost a part of ourselves. Even people who didn’t feel a parasocial bond with Luke Perry might have mourned when he died because they watched the television show, 90210, when they were younger.  Because Perry was a part of that show, some people felt as if they lost a link to their younger selves when he passed away.

3 Celebrities dying reminds of us our own mortality: The role of terror management
We may also be upset by the deaths of celebrities because their deaths remind us of our own mortality.  Terror management theory argues that we all have a fear of dying that we mostly deal with by not thinking about it.  But when something pushes our own mortality into our minds, it can be unpleasant.  Dr. Eric Wesselmann of Illinois State University points out that, when celebrities die or are diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses, it is a scary reminder of aging and death. Dr. Samantha Cacace of North Carolina State University suggests that seeing an idol die can make death seem even more likely for us.

4 Celebrities dying reminds us that even special people die: The role of self-serving biases

We may also react to the deaths of celebrities because they challenge our self-serving biases.  A great deal of research in psychology suggests that most people desperately want to believe that the world is safe and predictable.  That desire leads us to develop inaccurate views of the world so we can feel better about our lives.  For example, people think they are much less likely than other people to get awful diseases but much more likely to live a long life.  Dr. Hannah Hamilton of Kenyon College suggests that the death or serious illness of a celebrity challenges our protective self-biases.  In other words, the death or illness of a celebrity makes us realize that, if these awful things can happen to famous people, then we are at risk too.   Celebrity deaths shake us up because they threaten the self-serving illusions that help make us feel secure.

5 Celebrities dying makes us feel like everyone is dying: The role of the availability heuristic

Celebrity deaths are also distressing because just a couple of celebrity deaths can make it seem like everyone from our youth is dying.  This is due to the availability heuristic: the more easily we can think of examples of something, the more we assume that it happens a lot.  For example, the more easily I can think of Beatles songs, the more I will assume that they wrote lots of songs.  Dr. Jaye Derrick of the University of Houston thinks that the same thing can happen when celebrities die.   We can easily think of stars from the 90s who have died because their deaths were in the news.  But we haven't been thinking about stars from the 90s who HAVEN'T died. Thus, dying stars from the 90s are more available in memory than living stars, which makes us feel like almost everyone we loved in the 90s is dying, which is distressing.

6 Public grieving for celebrities allows us to express ourselves: The role of grief signaling

Another reason people may mourn for celebrities is grief signaling. In other words, we may mourn celebrities because doing so can signal to others that we are committed to a particular group, cause, or identity.  Dr. Cory Clark of Durham University points out that by publicly mourning the death of celebrities we let other people (maybe our Facebook friends, Twitter followers, or co-workers) know that we are devoted members of the “tribe” who knew and admired the celebrity’s cultural contributions. We thus communicate our group membership and good taste.

Additionally, celebrities are well-known (by definition), so publicly mourning the death of a celebrity allows us to connect with a large group of other people, at least temporarily.  When people mourn Luke Perry, for example, they are showing that they are someone who was into 90s culture, thereby connecting them to all the other people who feel the same way.  Even years after some celebrities die, people may still signal their grief, as fans of Elvis Presley continue to do more than 40 years after his death. 

Putting it all together

So why do people mourn celebrities?  It turns out that there are many reasons.  People mourn celebrities because: they feel a parasocial connection with the celebrities so their death feels like the  loss of a friend;  their death severs a link to one’s youth; their death makes us more aware of  our own mortality; the passing of famous people makes us realize that we are not special enough to escape illness and death; celebrity deaths make us feel like everyone from our youth is dying; and mourning celebrity deaths allows us to signal to others that we are a part of a certain group or have certain values.

Shira Gabriel is an Associate Professor at SUNY Buffalo, the Editor of the journal Self & Identity, and an Associate Editor of the SPSP Character and Context blog.