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Can You Get Addicted to Fame?

Some people are said to be famous for being famous; that is, people admire them, not for anything they have done, but because they have a large following. Does attention work in the mind like a drug, releasing a hit of dopamine that makes one seek it out, over and over again? Can that compulsion be taken to a level where it is harmful? Let’s take a look.

The science on the reaction to being temporarily popular is thin at best. I found a dissertation from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, but it’s based on interviews with 12 famous people, not brain scans, and not a large sample size. Still, it contains helpful information. Neda Vakili, the author of the dissertation, writes:

Fame is generally experienced as a progression through four phases: (a) a period of love and hate toward the experience, (b) an addiction phase where behavior is directed solely towards the goal of remaining famous, (c) an acceptance phase requiring a permanent change in everyday life routines, and (d) an adaptation phase where new behaviors are developed toward life changes involved with being famous.

A fascinating study of fame published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences attempted to quantify the relationship between fame, wanting to belong, and narcissism. They recruited participants through Amazon Mechanical Turk and paid them 65 cents to complete a 20-minute questionnaire. Participants were all adults, 75% were between 18 and 35 years old, 52% identified as male, and 78% identified as Caucasian, so nowhere near random and no control group.

Amazingly, the authors assessed narcissism with a single question: “To what extent do you agree with this statement: ‘I am a narcissist.’ (Note: The word ‘narcissist’ means egotistical, self-focused, vain, etc.).” Participants were asked to agree or disagree on an 11-point scale from “not very true of me” to “very true of me.” Previous surveys show that narcissists know they are narcissists and will reveal it when answering this single question. 

Participants were asked, “Which of the following aspects of fame seem most appealing to you, if at all?” They answered on a 7-point scale from “not very appealing” to “very appealing” and here are the top 10 items in order of how appealing they are:

  1. Having the ability to travel in first class and stay at exclusive resorts
  2. Being on the cover of a magazine
  3. Having your picture taken
  4. Being recognized in public
  5. Receiving gifts of luxury items
  6. Doing press interviews
  7. Living in a mansion or penthouse apartment
  8. Having VIP access to the best restaurants
  9. Being asked for your autograph
  10. Having a lot of followers on Twitter or other social media

The study found that narcissistic people do not pursue fame because it will help them advance social causes. No, they pursue fame for “the elite status that fame confers.” One major difference between narcissists and those who pursue fame for a sense of belonging or a desire for clout is that narcissists are much more likely to believe fame will happen to them. Regarding addiction to fame, the authors conclude:

It is possible that fame fantasizing — and the imagined social worth it confers — provides a soothing escape from anxieties about inclusion.

We see the familiar contours of displacement at work in the addiction to fame. It starts with an exposure that yields an adrenaline rush and a major dopamine hit from being momentarily the center of attention. The desire to repeat the experience becomes a compulsion to get that adulation and depression when you don’t.

The pursuit of fame often leads to substance use disorders, eating disorders, mental health disorders, and behavioral disorders which are difficult to untangle from the craving for attention. It may be that all compulsive behaviors travel similar pathways through the brain and can be treated with similar techniques for rechanneling urges to nontoxic activities. We will keep looking for those answers here at AddictionNews.

Written by Steve O’Keefe. First published January 23, 2024.


“An Exploration of Fame and the Most Common Types of Psychological Issues in Celebrities: A Qualitative Phenomenological Study,” by Neda Vakili, Chicago School of Professional Psychology, 2022.

“Fame and the social self: The need to belong, narcissism, and relatedness predict the appeal of fame,” Personality and Individual Differences, April 2013.

Image Copyright: leddamarita.


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