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Here’s a question I ask myself whenever I sit down to write a news article about recombinant DNA: How would Scott Disick word it? Sure, he’s had some ups and downs with the Kardashians, but who hasn’t? He’s a celebrity, so…

OK, fine. Maybe Scott Disick should not be our go-to scientific consultant. Yet many of us are influenced by celebrities on health and wellness matters, even when those celebs offer little or nothing in the way of medical or scientific knowledge. That’s partly because famous people get a level of media attention that eludes scientists. “Their claims can go worldwide in seconds,” says Sense About Science, a UK nonprofit that works to bring evidence and clarity to public discussion about science and medicine.

That media effect is powerful. “Celebrities can have substantial influence as medical advisers,” analysts reported in the Archives of Public Health last year. This “can either be beneficial or harmful depending on the accuracy of their advice.”

Why are we influenced by celebrities?

Why do we accept health and wellness recommendations from people who are equipped with fame but not expertise? Real research from real scientists says we can blame it on deeply embedded biases in human thinking. Numerous known psychological effects help explain our susceptibility to celebrity advice, according to a 2015 study in the Archives of Public Health. These biases can also make us too easily influenced by “campus celebrities,” such as a student athlete or sorority sister.

Quirky biases that make us susceptible

Why are we influenced by celebrities?

Halo effect
This common bias kicks in when the brain links success in one field (say, Jenny McCarthy’s modeling career) with authority in other fields (in this case, autism and vaccination research). We assume that the famous person’s high standards apply to everything they do.

Classical conditioning
The positive response you might have towards a celebrity may transfer to anything the celebrity says or sells. For example, once we associate anti-vaccine theories with Jim Carrey, those theories may start to elicit in us the same positive feelings we get from Carrey’s humor and acting.

Herd behavior
We have a natural tendency to act as others do in similar situations, with celebrities leading the herd. In a related concept, celebrity endorsements act as “signals”. They can simplify what may otherwise be a difficult decision, like choosing a hair product or an eating plan from dozens of options.

Self-conception
When a celebrity seems to represent our own idealized self-image of, say, hipness or attractiveness, we may follow their advice as a way of building or maintaining that image of ourselves. When a product is endorsed by a celebrity who we relate to, we are more likely to plan to buy it, suggests a 2012 study in Psychology & Marketing. This seems especially true if our self-esteem is low.

Cognitive dissonance
When there is conflict between our idol’s beliefs and our own, we might feel psychological discomfort, known as dissonance. Persuading ourselves that their beliefs are reasonable may help us alleviate that conflict. “For example, when celebrities offer medical advice, ardent fans may experience dissonance if they do not follow it,” according to the Archives of Public Health (2015).

When celebrities get it wrong

Why do some people in the public eye promote health and wellness advice that comes from well outside the realm of science or common sense? Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, has inspired many things: an Oscar win, expensive fashion choices, quirky baby names, wacky diets, and the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? (Viking, 2015) by Timothy Caulfield, a professor at the University of Alberta School of Public Health and Faculty of Law.

Paltrow may be justifiably admired for her acting and good intentions, introducing in the rest of us the possibility of those biases in how we respond to her generally. But the wellness concepts that she promotes are based on anecdotes—an appealing trap, but a trap nonetheless—or on long-discredited, if not silly, ideas. No, bras are not connected with cancer. No, sitting in the sauna is not an effective flu treatment. No, juice can’t magically remove “toxins” from the body. And no, “detoxing” via diets or products is not a real thing.

How can we protect ourselves from bogus celebrity advice? Check out the tips and examples below.

How to protect yourself from bogus health advice

1.

If you think a celebrity’s advice sounds dubious, it probably is. “I encourage young people to ignore almost all the health noise and gimmicks that flow from celebrity culture,” says Dr. Caulfield. Be wary of claims from any source that promise unrealistic results.

2.

“Seek out independent and credible sources of information,” says Dr. Caulfield. Check out reputable information sources, usually a dot-edu or dot-gov site that references peer-reviewed, scientific studies.

3.

Be wary of the unrealistic expectations and standards that celebrities represent. “It is their job to look good,” says Dr. Caulfield. “They often spend hours and hours every day in the pursuit of perfection. And, of course, the images of celebs are usually carefully staged. Perfect lighting. Perfect makeup. And a bit of Photoshop!” That celebrity glow also reflects considerable financial investment (the cost of a professional trainer and so on) and the influence of genetics.

4.

Ask for evidence: When we ask for evidence behind the claims, people in the public eye become more thoughtful and responsible, says Sense About Science, which encourages us all to follow up on health recs that seem dubious.

How to ask for evidence
Is it evidence-based? How to check
Reliable health websites

Reality check

Click each for more

Gwenyth Paltrow

Sunscreen is safer than sun exposure

“Natural” does not mean “healthy”

“I don’t think that anything that is natural can be bad for you,” said Gwyneth Paltrow in 2013 to Cosmopolitan (UK).

In this case, she was referring to the sun. Paltrow’s musing fails to account for Australia, which has intense sunshine, pale skins, and one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.

Sunscreen is safer than sun exposure
Paltrow has also suggested (via her website, Goop) that “chemical sunscreens” cause hormonal imbalances (note: everything in the world is a chemical). In fact, any recorded adverse effects of sunscreen are associated with high-dose concentrations applied to animals for the very purpose of understanding which concentrations are risky, according to a 2011 meta-analysis of studies by researchers at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York.

Bill Maher

Vaccines are safe

“Controversial” does not mean “insightful”

Think you’re too rational to fall for this stuff? Be careful. Bill Maher, a professional skeptic, scoffs at conspiracy theories—unless they are health-related, in which case he seems to embrace them.

Scientists have called out Maher for all sorts of wackiness, including his germ theory denialism, “vaccine nonsense,” scare-mongering about “Western medicine” and “toxins,” and fringe beliefs about HIV and AIDS. Maher “clearly has zero clue about how science really works,” says Science-Based Medicine, a website that serves as a useful fact-checker for claims about health and medicine.

Vaccines are safe
Vaccinations are one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the twentieth century, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Vaccine misinformation is especially galling to physicians and scientists because it constitutes a serious public health threat. Actor Jim Carrey and model Jenny McCarthy convinced innumerable people of an imaginary link between vaccines and autism, long after the study that suggested a link was proven fraudulent and retracted. Amid outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, McCarthy has recently tried to distance herself from the anti-vax movement she previously nourished.

Oprah Winfrey

TV docs can be quacks too

“Alternative” does not mean “open-minded”

“Truly, she is the perfect representative for the science-free attitudes that have allowed the rise of so much pseudoscience in medicine.” That’s Science-Based Medicine railing against Oprah Winfrey, in part for promoting people (like Dr. Oz) who make dubious claims about health and wellness.

In a 2014 study, researchers showed that half of Dr. Oz’s medical advice is baseless or flat-out wrong (BMJ). Dr. Christiane Northrup, Oprah’s favorite gynecologist, “has advocated using qi gong to increase ‘energy flow’ to the vagina and cure all manner of ‘female’ ills,” says Science-Based Medicine (which is unimpressed by Dr. Northrup’s theories). 

“Alternative” does not mean “open-minded”
Why do people who reject science describe themselves as open-minded? Science is about exploring and testing ideas, including those that appeal to us but don’t pan out. Oprah’s call for respecting fringe theories and methods seems to be part of her message about personal empowerment. Ultimately, though, her resistance to evidence comes down to her own needs. As Newsweek said, “On Oprah’s show, there is one opinion more equal than others.” Oprah’s.

Simon Cowell

Extra oxygen won’t help us

Breathe easy and avoid the scams

Does inhaling oxygen from small cans give us the youthful vigor of music and TV personality Simon Cowell? No, but it gave us a bunch of headlines in 2012, when sources close to Cowell revealed that this was how he tried to stay young.

Here’s the problem with Cowell’s oxygen habit: If your lungs are healthy, when your blood leaves them it’s nearly 100 percent saturated with oxygen. It can’t take any more.

Breathe easy and avoid the scams
With a couple of exceptions, supplemental oxygen therapies “are simply disreputable moneymaking enterprises,” writes Dr. Harriet Hall in Science-Based Medicine.

Don’t waste your money on oxygen cans or at oxygen bars (where customers inhale oxygen through masks). Supplemental oxygen therapy is in almost all cases a scam. “There is little scientific evidence to substantiate recent beneficial claims,” says the GI Society (the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research) on its website. “In fact, some physicians warn against the dangers of oxygen toxicity and possible cellular abnormalities from the overuse of oxygen therapy.”

Kim Kardashian

Waist trainers don’t work

Diet products are for making money

In a recent survey by Student Health 101, one of the celebrity wellness examples that students most frequently mentioned was the “waist trainer” promoted by reality TV stars Kim and Khloé Kardashian. These are girdles or corsets that claim to permanently slim the waist.

Do they work? What do you think? “There is no physiological reason why (a waist cincher) should work,” said Stephen Ball, associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri (quoted in USA Today). “It’s a perfect example of people being more worried about appearance than good health.”

Waist trainers put pressure on internal organs and could potentially impair lung function and weaken your core muscles, medics say.

Diet products are for making money
So Kim Kardashian helped formulate a brand of diet pill. “Really? And that’s a selling point?” asked James Fell, a fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune who blogs at Body for Wife. “You know why Kim Kardashian is famous. One hint: it’s not for her knowledge of pharmacology.”

Tom Cruise

Medication can treat mental illness

Anti-science positions may reflect other agendas

Actor Tom Cruise is almost as famous for ranting against psychiatric medications as he is for Mission: Impossible—like the time he pronounced that Brooke Shields should have treated her postpartum depression with vitamins and exercise rather than antidepressant medication.

Anti-science positions may reflect other agendas
As a committed Scientologist, Cruise was toeing his church’s line, which is vehemently anti-psychiatry. The problem: “There is no science in Scientology,” says Science-Based Medicine. Much peer-reviewed research indicates that many mental health conditions, including depression and psychotic disorders, can be treated safely and effectively with medications.

An editorial in The Lancet, a leading health journal, acknowledged that while some concerns about conventional treatments may be valid, Tom Cruise was “wrong, as a celebrity, to add to the burden of those with a mental illness, who often fear seeking or continuing treatment because of the stigma still attached to their condition.”

Miley Cyrus

Gluten is fine for most of us

Popularity doesn’t make it true

Singer Miley Cyrus recklessly advocated skipping gluten for a week to fix your physical and mental health. No, no, and no again.

Red flag #1: When a health claim is sweeping and vague, you can assume it’s false.

Red flag #2: When a health claim depends on diagnosing your own food sensitivities, be wary. “[T]here is convincing and repeated evidence that dietary self-diagnoses are almost always wrong, particularly when the diagnosis extends to most of society,” wrote the science and health journalist Michael Specter in the New Yorker (2014).

Only about 1 percent of the world’s population has a gluten allergy (Celiac disease), according to a to a recent review in the journal BMJ

What about gluten sensitivity?
Some evidence suggests that some intestinal symptoms attributed to “gluten intolerance” (a common self-diagnosis) may be linked to a group of carbohydrates known as FODMAPs.

Even if that effect is real for some people, it is unlikely to account for the vast number of us currently claiming to be gluten-sensitive, experts say. “I would have to say that at least 70 percent of [the gluten-free movement] is hype and desire,’’ said Joseph A. Murray, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and president of the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease (quoted in the New Yorker).

Angelina Jolie

Celebs who got it right

Celebrities getting advice before they speak out

Are celebrities becoming more sensible about the advice they dispense? Yes, says Sense About Science, a UK organization. “We’ve noticed charities briefing their celebrity champions, more people responding to celebrity claims on social media and more celebrities getting advice before they speak out.”

When celebrities take the time and trouble to get it right, they can make a positive difference. Health communication professionals have worked with celebrities successfully in collaborations like these:

  • Actor Michael J. Fox has vastly improved the public’s understanding of Parkinson’s disease. The Michael J. Fox Foundation, which has raised tens of millions of dollars, is “the most credible voice on Parkinson’s research in the world,” according to the New York Times.
  • Actors Christina Applegate and Angelia Jolie have largely impressed the medical community with their thoughtful public stances on breast cancer, a complex and controversial health issue. (That said, most of the reporting on Jolie’s decision did not mention the rarity of her risky gene mutation and might have led to testing and treatment in women who didn’t need it, according to the Archives of Public Health, 2015.)

Author’s note: I myself have fallen for bad celebrity advice. I remember some TV program in which actor James Wood said although cacti can go without water for ages, they love however much water they can get. So I overwatered two 10-year-old cacti and they died within a month. Why did I believe such nonsense? I hate you, James Wood.

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Christopher Wanjek is a health and science writer based in Washington, DC. He specializes in health, medicine, environmental sciences, physics and astronomy. His MPH is from Harvard School of Public Health. He is a columnist at LiveScience and the author of three books: Hey, Einstein! (2012), Food At Work (2005), and Bad Medicine (2003).