Study sheds light on celebrities’ power to shape the social acceptability of vaping

A new study has found that celebrities may not have the automatic power to shape our views on what’s considered normal, at least when it comes to vaping. Contrary to what we might assume, the mere presence of celebrities in articles discussing vaping did not significantly alter people’s perceptions of its social acceptability. Instead, factors like personal liking for celebrities and the desire to emulate them play pivotal roles in shaping perceptions. The study was published in Health Communication.

“I think everyone knows that celebrities are influential people. People often follow their example and advice. After all, they get a lot of publicity and lots of people have positive feelings about them or a desire to model their behavior. Those are all reasons celebrities wield influence on public attitudes and behaviors,” said study author Elizabeth Cohen, an associate professor of communication studies at the West Virginia University.

“But we wondered if there is something inherent in celebrity status that automatically sort of primed people to follow their lead. Film sociologists have been writing for years about the symbolic power of celebrities. Celebrities can symbolize a culture’s values and a society’s aspirations.”

“For this reason, we thought there might be a chance that when a celebrity engages in some sort of behavior, it could cue or activate a people’s cognitive association with societal norms. An earlier group of researchers made a similar suggestion and called it a ‘cool effect.’ As if the status of a being celebrity alone is enough to shape what people think is normal.”

The study included 248 participants, who were recruited from West Virginia University. These participants were randomly assigned to read different types of articles about vaping devices. The control article contained information about vaping devices without mentioning any celebrity. The other four versions of the article included the same vaping device information along with a brief reference to one of four different celebrities (Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Jennifer Lawrence, or Lindsay Lohan) using a vaping pen.

The researchers assessed how participants perceived the social norms related to vaping after being exposed to the different articles. In essence, they wanted to find out if celebrity involvement influenced how normal or acceptable vaping seemed.

To ensure the results were reliable and valid, the researchers also considered several factors that might affect participants’ perceptions. They included personal vaping experience and gender as control variables. Furthermore, they looked into the participants’ familiarity with the celebrities featured in the articles.

The researchers found that the mere presence of celebrities in articles about vaping did not significantly affect participants’ perceptions of vaping as a social norm overall. In other words, exposure to celebrity exemplars did not automatically make vaping appear more socially acceptable or prevalent.

Interestingly, there was one significant exception. Compared to Leonardo DiCaprio’s exemplar, participants who read about Jennifer Lawrence’s vaping example perceived vaping as more socially acceptable. This effect occurred independently of other factors, highlighting her unique impact.

“We didn’t find evidence of a cool effect,” Cohen told PsyPost. “That is, we didn’t find that simple exposure to a celebrity’s example was sufficient enough to shape people’s perceptions of what is normal. Exposure to a celebrity didn’t prime what people’s perception of social norms (we were looking at whether seeing a celebrity vaping influenced how common people estimated that vaping is a behavior in general). It doesn’t appear to be an automatic process. However, there was what we call an indirect effect of celebrity examples on social norms.”

Three factors were examined as mediators: liking, wishful identification, and parasocial relationship strength.

Liking a celebrity emerged as a significant factor. Participants who liked a celebrity had more positive perceptions of vaping norms when exposed to an article featuring that celebrity. This finding suggests that personal affinity for a celebrity can amplify their influence on perceptions of social norms.

Wishful identification, the act of wanting to emulate a celebrity, also played a role but with some nuances. For Johnny Depp and Lindsay Lohan, participants who wishfully identified with them perceived vaping as less normative. However, this effect was not observed with Jennifer Lawrence. This suggests that wishful identification may not always lead to a perception of something being normative, and it may depend on the celebrity and context.

Surprisingly, the strength of participants’ parasocial relationships with celebrities, meaning how closely participants felt connected to them, did not mediate the effects of celebrities on vaping norm perceptions. Unlike liking, parasocial relationship strength did not appear to play a significant role in shaping social norm perceptions in this context.

“This might seem counterintuitive,” Cohen said. “But remember that social norms are a perception of what is normal. We think this is because people who feel more personally connected to a celebrity are more likely to appreciate the celebrity as a unique and special individual instead of seeing them as a symbol of the masses. The more people feel like they know a celebrity, the more they can appreciate them for their social exceptionality.”

While this study provides valuable insights, it has some limitations. For instance, the choice of celebrities featured in the articles might have influenced the outcomes, as different celebrities may have varying levels of social salience. Future research should consider a more diverse range of celebrities and public personas.

Moreover, the study focused on vaping but did not distinguish between descriptive and injunctive norms related to vaping. Future research could explore how celebrities influence these different types of social norm perceptions.

“Although our study didn’t find it, I still think there’s a possibility that future studies could find evidence of a ‘cool effect’ in some circumstances,” Cohen said. “A limitation of this study is that we did an experiment where we exposed college students to articles about several Hollywood actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence. We chose these actors because were very well known and the people in the study were very familiar with them.”

“But I’m not confident that these celebrities were the most relevant to the young group of college students. If we get a chance to replicate the study with celebrities who are perhaps, not just popular in society in at large, but who are specifically popular among the social group of the participants in our study, we might have a better chance of figuring out if celebrities can automatically cue social norm perceptions, at least in some cases.”

The study, “Normative Influence of the Stars: The Relative Indirect Effects of Celebrity Exemplars on Vaping Norm Perceptions Through Liking, Parasocial Relationship Strength, and Wishful Identification“, was authored by Elizabeth L. Cohen, Mckay West, Koji Yoshimura, Molly E. Farrell, and Ashleigh Swain.

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