Humans at the core are social beings, and research has shown that the less connected people feel, the more they turn to celebrities, said Adam Galinsky, an expert in ethics and social psychology and a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. "It's a very adaptive and functional behavior."
Lucas added, however, that while worshipping the rich and famous is harmless in itself, it could be perceived as symptomatic of a rootless culture in which many people feel a sense of isolation.
"What we know of them [celebrities] through People magazine and other media sources fills a gaping and painful void in our lives," Lucas said. The dwindling influence of religion adds to that sense of yearning in people, he added, making the stars' exploits and eccentricities, their loves and losses, more than a form of entertainment.
"Religion is faltering, and in the process people are grappling with infantile wishes, with magical thinking," he said.
For the most part, star status conveys a sense of immortality and invincibility -- and "we are shocked when they die," Lucas added.
With loved ones, long-standing rituals help people cope, he said. But with celebrities, fans can be at a loss. "We don't know quite how to mourn the loss of stars because we don't expect them to die," he said.
Fischoff said he thinks it is perfectly appropriate to grieve a star's passing. His own wife cried upon hearing that Jackson had died, he said. With the loss of someone of Jackson's stature, "your cultural history disappears," he said. "You feel that someone you loved is gone, and it takes time to close the wound."
Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City, agrees. "When a celebrity passes, the loss is personal -- not because we knew the celebrity but because they were with us
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