Source: Scott Webb


With the advent of social media, it seems that more and more people are chasing fame these days. What are the underlying reasons why people are so desperate for the attention of strangers?

Question asked by: ReadWriteDrink




You can trace the desire of fame back to Adam Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments where human desire is selfish and linked to vanity. Vanity can manifest itself through fame. In other words, human beings desire success not for itself but for its rewards and how it makes us feel bout ourselves. And we need to validate that through communicating that with others. We are social creatures





You can trace the desire of fame back far beyond Adam Smith. See for example, the following dialogue written by Plato:

I was astonished at her words, and said: “Is this really true, O thou wise Diotima?” And she answered with all the authority of an accomplished sophist: “Of that, Socrates, you may be assured;-think only of the ambition of men, and you will wonder at the senselessness of their ways, unless you consider how they are stirred by the love of an immortality of fame. They are ready to run all risks greater far than they would have for their children, and to spend money and undergo any sort of toil, and even to die, for the sake of leaving behind them a name which shall be eternal. Do you imagine that Alcestis would have died to save Admetus, or Achilles to avenge Patroclus, or your own Codrus in order to preserve the kingdom for his sons, if they had not imagined that the memory of their virtues, which still survives among us, would be immortal? Nay,” she said, “I am persuaded that all men do all things, and the better they are the more they do them, in hope of the glorious fame of immortal virtue; for they desire the immortal.

I will add the following comment by Lear:

Of course it is not odd to think that people desire immortality. Homeric warriors want to be immortal like the gods; precisely because they cannot be, they strive to win glory and the quasi-immortality of fame. (See Iliad XII 322–328.) What strikes Socrates as odd is that this desire for immortality is characteristic of love. It is interesting to note that in epic culture the desire for immortality is also linked to beauty.

Thus here we have an interpretation which I consider familiar to many and which is quite old. I am certain that, if you consume modern media, you are familiar with ideas such as wanting to leave a mark on the world, through glory and fame, or that one becomes immortal by never being forgotten. Also, see the concept of kleos. Per Segal:

“But I shall tell you [Circe’s prophecies], in order that we may die knowing them, or else avoiding death and doom we might escape,” 12.156f.). That forgetting ofnostos may be even more intimately associated with the decay in the Sirens’ flowery meadow if, as Douglas Frame suggests, the root of nostos implies a return of consciousness (noos) in a “coming back”(neomai) from Hades. Lethe, forgetting, also has associations with darkness and the obscurity of death.

Epic song and the memory that it preserves, however, confer a victory over death. Its “imperishable fame,” kleos aphthiton, is the exact antithesis of the Sirens’ rot and decay.

Now, this is the insight we might get from philosophy and the humanities. What about the social science of the idea above? One framework is provided by Terror Management Theory:

TMT posits that while humans share with all life-forms a biological predisposition toward self-preservation in the service of reproduction, we are unique in our capacity for symbolic thought, which fosters self-awareness and the ability to reflect on the past and ponder the future. This spawns the realization that death is inevitable and can occur at any time for reasons that cannot be anticipated or controlled.

The awareness of death engenders potentially debilitating terror that is “managed” by the development and maintenance of cultural worldviews: humanly constructed beliefs about reality shared by individuals that minimize existential dread by conferring meaning and value. All cultures provide a sense that life is meaningful by offering an account of the origin of the universe, prescriptions for appropriate behavior, and assurance of immortality for those who behave in accordance with cultural dictates. Literal immortality is afforded by souls, heavens, afterlives, and reincarnations associated with all major religions. Symbolic immortality is obtained by being part of a great nation, amassing great fortunes, noteworthy accomplishments, and having children.

Fame, glory and associated ideas can be seen as ways to achieve symbolic immortality, as suggested by Plato/Socrates/Diotima and by Lear. Greenberg et al. use this framework explicitly to understand the “fame game”:

From a TMT perspective, fame may also be increasingly valued because people generally have become less devoted to the literal immortality ideologies offered by religion and consequently more committed to symbolic means of death transcendence (cf. Rank, 1932). Consistent with this idea, Maltby (2004) found an inverse relationship between religiosity and celebrity worship.

They also consider other reasons:

There are undoubtedly a variety of additional reasons that people seek or admire fame. Fame brings attention and adulation, money, and power; consequently fame may be sought for these more pragmatic reasons, as well as for symbolic terror-management purposes. Admiring famous people may provide inspiration and give direction to our own strivings for self-worth (Lockwood & Kunda, 1999) contributing to striving for fame and the appeal of celebrity.

Even from the perspective of TMT, fame can serve a number of functions. It can provide a sense of continuance beyond death and a widely validated sense of self-worth, but it also helps validate one’s worldview by creating a sense of a shared worldview. Within the USA, if you meet a person from another part of the country for the first time, you may not have much in common in terms of people and places you know personally, but you readily share a knowledge of the famous dead such as George Washington, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, and the famous living such as Johnny Depp, Barack Obama, and Bill Gates.

Note: this is but one theory that I am sharing to make a point, without going into details. TMT has a lot of support, but it also has multiple challenges and challengers: /r/AskSocialScience/comments/bwki4c/is_terror_management_theory_controversial/

There are several aspects of an individual which may influence their desire for fame. For example, Greenwood et al. studied Need to belong, Narcissism and Relatedness. Regarding the third one:

Relatedness has been conceptualized as one of three ‘‘basic psychological needs’’ by Deci and Ryan’s (2000), along with feelings of autonomy and competence, all of which are indicators of a healthy socio-emotional life. Scoring high on relatedness, unlike scoring high on belongingness needs, does not indicate anxiety about social exclusion, but rather a sense of security with one’s social network and the degree to which one is valued by others.

Their items were designed to capture several kinds of fame motives which they distinguished into: Visibility, Status and Prosocial. They also had two items to measure Fame Fantasy (“how often participants imagined being famous” and Fame Realism (“how realistic they believed it was that they would become famous one day”).

According to their analyses, Need to belong is associated with all aspects of fame except Fame Realism. Narcissism is associated with all aspects of fame except fame for prosocial motives. Contrarily for Relatedness:

Individuals scoring high on relatedness (inversely correlated with narcissism) only showed an increased interest in prosocial fame—using fame to benefit close others (e.g., helping friends/family financially) or generalized others (e.g., using fame to advance a cause). It is intuitive that individuals who are securely nested within social networks would also report a high interest in using fame to help others. More difficult to interpret, however, are the lack of significant associations with other dimensions of fame appeal.

For another example of a similar approach, see Maltbly et al.:

In terms of using the findings to build a potential robust model of desire for fame, the findings from the two studies suggest that six of the factors pass the criteria in this study for showing replicable factor congruence, demonstrate satisfactory internal reliability and are able to show some validity in that they are used actively in their evaluation of other peoples’ desire for fame. The six factors are ambition, meaning derived through comparison with others, vulnerability, attention seeking, conceitedness and social access.

There are therefore many possible motives for a person to seek fame according to research. It goes beyond just humans being “social”, and depending on how you define and conceptualize vanity and selfishness, to seek fame may not be properly explained by either.



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  1. colonialist 16 October, 2019 at 13:33 Reply

    From a perspective of more personal immediacy, fame brings people to greater attention to what one produces, such as books, and the more one gets the more one will have added. And the more the coffers swell.

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