by Anika Mahansaria

Why is it  that people with a higher social status say different from what ‘normal people’ say? Why is it that often we believe these higher class people more than we believe normal people, even if their claims a) have very little proof or are b) very far-fetched. An expert could be anyone who claims to be very knowledgeable in a particular field. It could be an actor, a celebrity, a scientist or a politician. There are many small differences between an authoritative figure and a celebrity. One of these is that a celebrity is very well known even though they may not have earned it (eg, the Kardashian – Jenner children). An authority figure or expert, on the other hand, earns their fame, though many times they aren’t famous, and their opinion on a certain topic would be valued and respected.  But our focus today is on famous people. How is it that these people with higher social statuses can change our thinking and what we like and dislike? Today, I have examined exactly that and am going to show you about how outside influences can change our thoughts and actions. 

So to start, why did I pick this topic when I could have picked anything else? I thought that this would be an interesting topic to cover. I thought this when I was reading a post about someone who said that they were a coronavirus expert. For me, this seemed really far-fetched as when I had read the post, the virus had been there for only about a month, and didn’t have the  media attention, many cases and many people knowing what it was. At that time, I felt that it was ridiculous for people to make that claim when hardly anything about it was revealed, and how could they say that they knew the symptoms? Another reason was that, once I read it, I was left wondering whether people with fame like celebrities misuse their platforms and influence us. 

This made my research very interesting and fun. While talking to people about what I am doing for my project, many people brought up the ‘appeal to authority’ fallacy.  This fallacy talks about people believing in something because of an authority. It could be a book written by an expert in a certain field, or maybe an actor supporting a particular sports brand and making people see why they should buy sporting goods only from there. This may not be true, but people would do it as an authority figure has said to. The questions that I aim to answer talk about is this very fallacy. Let’s see how different people react to different situations presented by their favourite famous person. 

To start off, the 4 people I picked were Joaquin Phoenix, Ryan Reynolds, Jenifer Lawerence, and Ranbir Kapoor. The stars who have made the claim aren’t experts in the field of their claims but these are some of their controversial views. I also didn’t use expert claims it would be quite similar to the Milgram experiment, which is testing obedience (see below for more details), and wouldn’t have the effect I was looking for. The claims made by each star were as follows: 

  • Joaquin Phoenix: Teaching people what is right and wrong isn’t the job of entertainers such as film directors. Anyone can tell what is right and wrong. You can misinterpret stuff from not just movies but also songs, books etc. 
  • Ryan Reynolds: The claim made by Ryan Reynolds wasn’t directly to do with him but rather the ad about Peloton cycles, fad diets, and extreme workouts, which caused a lot of outrage on twitter. This ad was about a woman receiving a Peloton cycle for Christmas from her husband. The ad then continues to show a series of her workouts through the course of the year, the ad ending with the line, “A year ago, I didn’t realise how much this would change me”. This ad has been the center of controversies regarding sexism (as people felt that the man gave his wife the bike for her to lose weight). 
  • Jenifer Lawrence: While most of the times, she supports the LGBTQ+ community, but she has been known to make a few offensive remarks and use offensive terminology, such as ‘dyke’ when referring to transgender people. 
  • Ranbir Kapoor: The controversy that I picked, was about the movie ‘Jagga Jasoos’, where he was co-producer. In this controversy, he had allegedly removed Govinda’s role. This is controversial as Govinda is also a famous actor. At the time of shooting his scenes, Govinda was slightly sick, and hence the producers removed his role. This upset Govinda a lot, as he had put in a lot of work, and he felt annoyed that Ranbir Kapoor (who at the time was suspected of firing his role), would fire him. 

The experiment was me asking the 4 people mentioned whether they agree with the statements that the above mentioned stars made. I asked for each claim to take a moment and think carefully before answering. Each person was required to tell me whether they agreed with the statements, and their reasoning. Some things that I noticed when people were answering was: 

  • Everyone was reluctant to answer 
  • People hesitated after the first person gave their answer 
  • People generally answered that their opinion of their favourite star wouldn’t change, in terms of acting based on these claims, but rather that they would reduce their liking of the person’s personality, but their acting skills would still keep the famous person as their favourite actor. 
  • There is a line after which people don’t necessarily believe in what their favourite celebrity was saying. 

This experiment isn’t very uncommon. The base of this experiment was found in the Milgram experiment. The purpose of the experiment is to show ‘obedience’. This was started in the second world war, to test the fact that many people were claiming that they were just following orders from their superiors. Milgram wanted to test whether Germans were very obedient to authority figures. He devised a test to see if the Germans would be obedient even when another person’s life was at risk. In order to perform the experiment, one needed to know whether they would be the ‘teacher’ or the ‘student’. The teacher is required to shock the student every time they give an incorrect answer. At the end of the experiment, about 65% of the teachers had reached the highest voltage which was 450 volts. Milgram continued on to test this in 18 different situations, where each time the situation was changed to test obedience. This goes to show that people listen to authority figures. Authority figures are like celebrities in their fields. For example, if a teacher doesn’t understand a part of the topic she is supposed to cover, she would ask the head of her department to help her explain that part. They are people that one would go to when they have an issue or want expert advice.  

Social media is a way for people to appeal to authority even more. Many famous people have social media, and often YouTubers post pictures or videos of extreme pranks and dares which could often end up injuring another person. While it is done in good fun, and I’m sure that the people involved know the risk, if younger audiences (most likely people who are 7 and below, since they have more impressionable minds), view the videos, this could lead to them unknowingly harming their friends. 

But this was just the bad, there are many good sides too such as getting inspired by these people and working hard to achieve your goals. We just need to be careful with what we believe.

Anika Mahansaria is a 8th grader who loves performing. She is passionate about her work and enjoys spending time with her family and friends. A few of her interests include dancing, acting, and singing. Her hobbies are cooking, baking and reading. Anika writes for the Ascent because it gives her an audience where she can freely express her views.