What We Can Learn from the Balloon Boy

by kris bishop on October 23, 2009

by Orville Gilbert Brim, author of new release LOOK AT ME! The Fame Motive from Childhood to Death, available now

Brim_final_front     “It has become sadly and abundantly clear that the story of the boy in the balloon that captured the world’s attention last week was simply an elaborate hoax, carried out by the boy’s father.  At one level it looks like it was an attempt to get on reality TV.  But there is a very good chance that something else was involved, a little-studied aspect of human development I call the fame motive.
Has our completely wired world caused more people than ever before to seek fame?  Or has it just caused those driven by the need for fame to surface more easily?

    Seeking the answer to these questions let me to write a new book, just published by the University of Michigan Press titled:  Look at Me: The Fame Motive from Childhood to Death. For my entire career I have studied the mysteries of human development.  When I decided to search for what it is that drives people to seek fame—often doing things well beyond what might seem reasonable—I thought there would be plenty of information.
That did not turn out to be true.  There is plenty to be found on primary motivations like the search for power, sex, money, or the urge to create great art or literature.  But fame as a primary motive?  Almost nothing.
You will not find the word “fame” indexed in any of the leading texts on personality development, in comprehensive books on human motivation, or in the “International Handbook of Psychology.” There is no test for the fame motive, nor have there been any experiments designed to detect it.  While there are literally thousands of studies on how to change behavior—stopping addiction or smoking for example—there is nothing about how to eradicate the desire for fame.
The definition of fame can be as simple as this:  When people you don’t know are thinking of you or talking about you, you are famous.  You can be famous around the world, across the country or within your own community.  The key to fame is when strangers are talking or thinking about you.
In early times, the way to achieve fame was through widespread recognition of your image.  Imagine the impact of a ruler whose image was on a coin.  When photography was invented, a person’s image had new opportunities to spread.  Recording the spoken word and then the invention of moving pictures gave the ideal of fame its three main elements—recognition of face, voice, and image.
The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research in Storrs, CT, provided me with what little research data is available on the fame motive.  Different surveys at different times, done over the past four decades asked questions about what is most important in life.  While most people would answer happiness, a family, or wealth, I found that consistently about two percent of respondents would say that fame is their primary motive.
This has led me to conclude that a conservative estimate is that two percent of the American population of noninstitutionalized people over age 21 suffer from the fame motive.
That puts the number of people in this nation with fame as a basic motive at about four million, or two in every 100.  I did two small surveys of the fame motive, one in China and one in Germany.  Both had essentially the same results.  As a result, I believe the fame motive exists in other cultures as well.
This leads, of course, to the question of how the fame motive arises.  There is no test for the motive, but based on my experience in the field of human development I have come to believe that the fame motive arises from a sense of oneself as unaccepted or unapproved. There are individuals who for whatever many reasons, are rejected by their parents, often their mother, by adolescent peers, sometimes in adulthood, and never get the sense of acceptance for approval that’s basic to their human desire. And in place of this comes the motive to be famous – recognized, talked about, sought after.  In some fashion, it shifts into a self image grounded in a famous future self.
I received a letter from a teenage girl in which she wrote:  “I don’t share my desire for fame with anyone….It’s kind of like an inner secret with myself.  It’s like a dream that will never come true.  I often try to forget about it since I don’t want to be disappointed.  But you never know….Maybe one day you’ll see me on TV, in the papers and magazines.  Hey, anything is possible.”
There was the granddaughter of a friend who wanted to study ballet and voice because “someday I’m going to be famous, and I’d better get good at something.”
The really hard thing about the desire for fame is that unlike the thirst for money or power, there is no direct path to it.  Fame is conferred by society. It can come through a single act—think Nathan Hale.
Sometimes fame is never sought, as in Steve Bartman who thought he was just going to a Cubs game.  The artist Saul Steinberg, who did the famous New Yorker cover “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” said:  “My dream has been to have a quiet (recognition) among my artist colleagues.  Now this whole episode has made me comical.  It has reduced me to ‘the man who did that poster.’”
Bartman, Steinberg, and people like the swimmer Mark Spitz and the tennis player Pete Sampras apparently do not suffer from the fame motive.  They have been content to live their post-fame lives outside the limelight, without struggling to force their way back in.
People who suffer from the fame motive find themselves simply unable to walk away from the desire to achieve it.   This can be particularly frustrating when you estimate the number of famous people in this country, keeping in mind how many people become famous unintentionally.
Here is a little numbers game that can illustrate just how few people achieve fame.  Remember also that a lot of these people achieve fame unintentionally.
There are about 3000 Halls of Fame in the US.  If you figure about 50 people per hall, with about one-third dead, that leaves about 100,000 living famous people.  Add, say, 100,000 from Who’s Who and other directories of the famous and the number comes to about 200,000 living people who are famous for all reasons.  Only a tiny percentage of people with the fame motive actually achieve it.  My estimate is about one percent.
For a person with the fame motive, whatever level or strength of fame may be achieved, it is never enough to either satisfy the fame seeker or to cause the fame motive to disappear, leading to what has been called the “16th minute of fame,” the desire to live on in people’s minds after death.   A man recently named US Senator from Illinois after the sitting governor was deposed was prominent in the news for having his tomb already in place and inscribed with his life’s accomplishments.
There are a lot of reasons Richard Heene might have come up with his tale of a boy in the balloon.  One of the most compelling reasons may well turn out to be one that he doesn’t fully understand but is central to his being—the fame motive.”

Learn more about Orville Gilbert Brim and Look at Me!

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