Why We Trust Celebrity Health Advice — Even When It's Wrong

Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images.
On Wednesday, The New York Times Magazine published a feature on the wellness guru so many people love to hate, Gwyneth Paltrow, aka G.P. It's a pretty satisfying read if Goop's pseudoscientific articles typically make your eyes roll back in your head (like the one that said you "probably have a parasite," or the one that suggested walking barefoot can "neutralize free radicals" and also solve depression), and the story also helps to humanize the real woman behind all the goop. At times, G.P. comes across sort of self-aware.
For example, G.P. addressed the fact that her website often runs controversial, misguided health advice, saying, "We’re never making statements." She and her editor insisted their website is "just asking questions." In fact, Goop plans to hire a full-time fact-checker in a few months. When a story goes viral because it's so wrong, G.P. tallies it as a victory, because it means they've stoked a "cultural firestorm," she said. In other words, it's all good!
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But G.P. isn't the only celebrity who gives wellness advice without legitimate credentials. The Kardashians (heard of them?) do it all the time on their apps, Halle Berry launched a health and fitness brand this year, and even reality star Kristin Cavallari published a gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free cookbook, because why not? For every celebrity wellness person, though, there's someone else on the internet telling them why they're incorrect. On Refinery29 we've written countless stories debunking a celebrity's whacky health advice — because so often they are wrong.
The question is, why are we still inclined to follow a celebrity's health advice even if we know they aren't experts?
This is a topic that researchers and public health experts are fascinated by. (After all, people who devote their lives to medicine and health certainly have a vested interest in being heard over the noise of celebrities.) Broadly speaking, celebrities give us "shortcuts or signals to point us towards what we should actually do," Steven Hoffman, PhD, who has studied how celebrities impact health decisions, told Refinery29 last year in an interview about the Kardashians. Even in the age of #SponCon, it seems like whatever workouts, diets, or crystals celebrities claim they use have a "halo" around them.
When we look at celebrities, there's a psychological phenomenon at play called "self-conception," Dr. Hoffman said. The gist is that we're drawn to celebrities who seem to match how we perceive ourselves — or, at least, how we imagine the best versions of ourselves. So, if you think that Gwyneth Paltrow is the perfect picture of health and wellness, then you'll try to copy and paste all the ridiculous things that she does into your own life. Or if you prefer Chrissy Teigen's laissez faire approach to health trends, then you'll probably try to replicate her mindset. This might sound obvious, but it's what makes the influencer-driven health and wellness world that we live in so complex.
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If someone we admire says something we don't agree with, then we often try to find ways to rationalize the conflicting messages in our brain, Dr. Hoffman explained. "In some respects, it's hard for people to be critical of those who they at the same time admire," he said. Example? Let's say you stan Kim Kardashian, but then she gives really bone-headed advice about dieting. Instead of accepting that you have these conflicting views, you might unconsciously follow the celebrity's advice in order to reduce the psychological discomfort that can arise from holding conflicting views. Or you might just ignore the conflicting messages and choose not to think about the very potential danger of putting a Yoni egg in your vagina, or giving yourself a coffee enema as G.P. and Goop suggest.

In order to protect ourselves from some of the bad advice that celebrities give, we really need to be on-guard and seek out better advice from better sources.

Steven Hoffman, PhD, who has studied how celebrities impact health decisions
The author of the Times feature, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, grapples with this cognitive dissonance in her story, and hypothesizes that G.P.'s particular appeal is that she's upfront about how much work she puts into herself. By taking herself off the pedestal, she "disrupted the contract between the celebrity and the civilian who is observing her," Brodesser-Akner wrote. But that's also part of the reason why so many people resent her.
Sometimes it feels like we're going in circles: a celebrity says something insane, doctors (and journalists, and people on Twitter) explain why that is wrong, and then we go back to living lives that revolve around following celebrities. It's important to get correct information out there, and not downplay it when people give dangerous or damaging advice, but there's got to be some balance. Celebrities need to realize that when they say something, people will listen, and follow their advice often uncritically, and without getting their own physician's advice, Dr. Hoffman said. On the other hand, it's on us laypeople to digest all this information and figure out when to call B.S. "In order to protect ourselves from some of the bad advice that celebrities give, we really need to be on-guard and seek out better advice from better sources," he says.
It would be much better if celebrities worked with credible organizations, charities, or public health authorities when crafting their messages, because "celebrities are not always exercising their privileged position in a responsible way," Dr. Hoffman said. "I've seen examples of celebrities promoting products that don't work or could be harmful, and I think it's terrible and something that should never happen," he said. Jennifer Gunter, an outspoken Ob/Gyn and Goop-truther wrote on Twitter that the way that G.P. flaunts her misinformation is downright unethical.
As Brodesser-Akner pointed out, Wellness Culture™ has been so wildly successful in part because women are often dismissed by doctors or made to feel hysterical. So, it's only natural that we would seek out alternative treatments from sources we feel like we can trust — but we need to make sure the advice we're getting isn't full of goop.
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