Everyone loves a good story. People expectantly gather around a story-teller at a party, listening intently to the narrative they weave. A really good story can even make a person’s day.
Entire companies have been built by the telling of a good story. Just look at TED talks, which gained their power and following from storytelling.
Are stories and personal narratives always a change agent for good? Or can they also be used for less altruistic purposes? And what happens when you add the multiplying power of celebrity and influencers into the mix of a good narrative?
Humans tend to be a trusting bunch. When someone tells us a story, most people’s default is to believe it to be true, especially if it’s personal. Best friend had an especially awful date? Why would they embellish that? And even if a story is embellished a bit, rarely are there any potential harmful consequences to the listener.
All of that changes when the storyteller is a celebrity. And the stories they are telling are about their health or mental health.
Science vs. a Good Story Told by a Celebrity
Celebrity narratives are the reason we have anti-vaxxers today — people who believe it is harmful to have their children vaccinated (at all, or at the standard vaccination schedule). These anti-vaccine stances aren’t based on any scientific studies (unless they point to the single, since-retracted study), but rather on good story telling by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Bill Maher, Alicia Silverstone, Rob Schneider, and Jessica Biel. Celebrities like them tell an anti-vaccine story based on their personal beliefs or third-hand information — never the scientific research.
It doesn’t end just with bad health advice. The power of the celebrity and influencer narrative also has fueled a whole new wellness industry of new snake oil products and services. Stuff that has zero scientific support for its use, but people feel good using it because it’s endorsed by so-and-so.
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow decided to get into the women’s wellness industry back in 2010 with her founding of her company, Goop. Since that time, it has promoted an endless stream of woo products meant to appeal to women who aspire to be like Gwyneth. Goop’s outrageous health claims on its website got so bad that it was forced to settle a lawsuit in 2018 with 10 state prosecutors. The settlement resulted in a $145,000 fine:
According to Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, the company claimed that its Jade and Rose Quartz eggs, after inserted into the vagina, “could balance hormones, regulate menstrual cycles, prevent uterine prolapse, and increase bladder control. Goop advertised that the Inner Judge Flower Essence Blend, a blend of essential oils meant to be taken orally or added to bathwater, could help prevent depression.”
Make no mistake about it — tens of thousands of people believed (and maybe still do) Paltrow and her company’s claim that some bathwater salts could actually help prevent depression.
Yet that hasn’t stopped companies from associating themselves with the snake oil that Goop shills. Netflix announced a new series unironically called “The Goop Lab” for 2020 — associating the scientific “lab” with the clearly unscientific focus of Goop.
The Dark Side of Celebrity Narratives
As much as we love a good narrative, we also love it when a celebrity or influencer endorses the story, or expands upon it in a new way. When a celebrity tells us the story, it feels all that more special. After all, companies hire such folks to promote their products because it’s effective.
But a good story can have a dark side too. Stories will nearly always trump scientific data, because data are boring while stories are engaging. Worse yet, a good anecdote appears to interfere with many people’s ability to engage in scientific reasoning (Rodriguez et al., 2016).
Research has also indicated that the more often a person is exposed to misinformation or “fake news,” the more likely they were to believe in the accuracy of the fake news headline (Pennycook et al., 2018). In short, people’s reasoning skills can be worn down by repetition. If you say something often enough — even if untrue — people will begin to believe it.
This is potentially extremely dangerous when it comes to health and mental health information. The belief that more truthful information can overcome false information is no longer true, as information filter bubbles are not easily popped. When a celebrity or influencer simply keeps saying the same false information, people will inevitably not only listen, but also believe.
A wellness guru is rarely an expert in anything. What worked for them may or may not work for you. But because of the halo surrounding their influence, you may believe it will work for you if they keep telling you it will — regardless of what the scientific evidence says.
Pennycook, G., Cannon, T. D., & Rand, D. G. (2018). Prior exposure increases perceived accuracy of fake news. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(12), 1865–1880. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000465
Rodriguez, F., Rebecca E. Rhodes, Kevin F. Miller & Priti Shah. (2016). Examining the influence of anecdotal stories and the interplay of individual differences on reasoning. Thinking & Reasoning, 22(3), 274-296. https://doi.org/10.1080/13546783.2016.1139506