Our fascination with the Royal Family

Our fascination with the Royal Family
Science of Life


The magazine rack stands near the checkouts in my local Centra store and I often vacantly ponder the magazine covers as I stand in line waiting my turn to pay for the items in my basket.

Prince William and Kate Middleton are pretty much on permanent display and as a result of my lazy gazing I can inform you that their three children are called George, Charlotte and – the latest – Louis.

Pride of royal place is lately strongly contested by William’s brother Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who married on Saturday, May 19. Again I have learned in Centra that Meghan is a former American TV actress, who is divorced and a woman of mixed race.

My knowledge of the royal family is of the sketchiest variety, passively picked up from the unrelenting coverage they receive in the media. But we all know people who make a hobby of royal watching and who can build up an encyclopaedic knowledge of this subject – what royal is married to whom, who is getting on/not getting on with whom, names of children, detailed royal family trees, royal hobbies and interests, etc etc.


Why are people so interested in the royals? Public fascination with the royals, and I refer in particular of course to the British royal family, is just one particular example of the general case of interest in celebrities.

American psychologist Professor Frank Farley, quoted in a Time Health article by Jamie Ducharme on April 26, 2018, tells us that we can live some of our lives through famous media figures. Farley goes on to say that human beings are social animals and we can exhibit “parasocial behaviour” whereby we create a one-sided relationship and become attached to a person, particularly to a celebrity, even though we never interact with them in any meaningful way.

This parasocial relationship could be with a sports team, a sports star, a TV show, a film actor, a popular singer, and so on, or with the royal family.

Farley explains that we tend to develop these parasocial relationships with celebrities in particular because they embody all the things we have learnt to desire – fame, wealth, lifestyle, happiness, social position and so on. As children we were all regaled with fairytales and other stories involving kings, queens, beautiful princesses, handsome princes, heroic adventurers, etc.

These images and the desires and ambitions they provoke stay with us always and are kept alive by massive media exposure to the royals, Hollywood stars, sporting heroes and so on. The unrelenting media concentration on celebrities creates a feedback loop – the media knows we are interested in celebrities so the media keeps covering celebrities, and we consequently are exposed more and more to these celebrities.

A pioneering paper on celebrity worship was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in February 2002 by Lynn McCutcheon and others. The authors ranked celebrity fans into four categories. At the lowest end of the scale fans of celebrities simply and privately observe or read about celebrities. People on the next level up make a social activity out of their celebrity watching, talking and sharing information with others about their interest. Most celebrity watchers don’t go beyond this level.

However, a small number inhabit more serious territory, developing an obsession with the celebrity or believing they have a close personal relationship with them. And a rare but dangerous category exists where the celebrity worshipper indulges in extreme behaviour such as stalking.

Certain traits may predispose people to develop higher levels of celebrity worship according to McCutcheon, such as anxiety, irresponsibility and difficulty in establishing close relationships and, to a lesser extent, loneliness and low intelligence. Gambling addicts also seem to be more prone than average to become celebrity worshippers.

It is not difficult to understand why people are so interested in the royals. Most of us find it difficult to achieve success, social position and wealth but when we look at the royals we behold people who are born into all of this. They seem to live the lives we were conditioned to long for when we listened to fairytales and other stories as children.

But, of course, we edit out all the difficulties that are associated with living the royal life – lack of privacy and living in a goldfish bowl, adherence to strict protocol, enslavement to ritualised formality etc.

Let me return to the Centra magazine rack again to have a look at our local Irish celebrities. It seems to me that Rachel Allen is the most publicly exposed woman in Ireland. She is forever smiling at me from the magazines in Centra. Then she smiles at me from my daily and Sunday newspapers, and when I turn on the TV there she is smiling at me again as she painstakingly explains how to make an apple tart.

TV talk-show host Miriam O’Callaghan is another favourite of the magazines and of the newspapers. In recent times stories that Miriam intends to run for election to the office of President of Ireland, when Michael D. Higgins’s term of office expires, featured so persistently in the media that Miriam had to publicly announce she will not be a candidate in any upcoming Presidential election. And of course the media keeps us fully up to date with Conor McGregor, publishing regular blow-by-blow accounts (pun intended) of all his comings and goings.

And finally psychologist Prof. Farley assures us that there is no harm in keeping an eye on the royals, if you feel so inclined, so long as you keep things in perspective.

William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC.