O.J.'s yes men and the celebrity echo chamber problem: "People come to believe that their version of the truth is correct"

Salon speaks to a psychologist about celebs, egomaniac politicians and people who tell you what you want to hear

Published February 9, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

John Travolta, David Schwimmer and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in "American Crime Story"   (FX)
John Travolta, David Schwimmer and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in "American Crime Story" (FX)

Celebrities and politicians have a number of things in common. Among other things, they often surround themselves with people who agree with them: Whether O.J. Simpson’s “dream team” or Donald Trump’s legion of admirers, famous people often get very heavy praise from the people they run with. You can see it in the presidential debates, you can see it in starstruck characters in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” You can see it every time Trump yells about the people who “love me.”

Sometimes it leads to confidence. Sometimes excessive praise from sycophants changes them and produces monsters of narcissism. How does it happen, and what are the consequences? How do yes men collect around a famous or anonymous person? Do women collect flatterers as often as men do?

Salon spoke to clinical psychologist Art Markman, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What does it do to the human ego when our self-image is reinforced?

There are a lot of people who are narcissists, who surround themselves with people who are only going to reinforce their beliefs about themselves. Some of this is a mutually reinforcing thing: If you’re the kind of person who can’t tolerate people with different opinions from you, you eliminate those people from your life. The more power you have, the more power you have to influence that environment.

We don’t really know what happened in 1994, but revisiting the O.J. Simpson murder trial reminds me what a weird kind of hero worship collected around him, from Kato to his fans to his “dream team.” What happens when a celebrity like Simpson has yes-men all around him? 

When anyone – O.J. included -- is surrounded by people who reinforce a story being told, that story comes to have a reality, regardless of the truth. People come to believe that their version of the truth is correct or that their actions were justified based on the repeated support they get from the people surrounding them.

Even in cases in which someone actually committed a crime, they may ultimately come to believe in their innocence (or at least in the justification of their actions) when surrounded by others who agree with them.

So, someone wants to be surrounded by people who agree with them, they go out and do it, and it makes them more absorbed into their own egos?

One of the things we know about human communication is that to communicate, you have to think about the world the way they do, even if you disagree, because you need to be able to respond to them. And one of the things that does is that people exit conversations thinking more similarly than they did when they entered the conversation.

So if you engage in a conversation you disagree with, you are forced to grapple with and represent the world the way they do.

If you only engage with people who agree with you, you create an echo chamber. It pushes you toward more polarized views.

Social media is often called an echo chamber. Is that fair?

That has to do with the way we consume social media. Most of us are most comfortable engaging with people we agree with. There are so many viewpoints, and we pick and choose which one we choose to engage with.

But you could choose to engage with people you agree with, and can find common ground with them and even moderate your views.

Personally I was in a situation where I found myself with someone who disagreed with me [on handguns]. We ended up having a somewhat uncomfortable lunch, followed by our writing an Op-Ed piece together in which we said: We sit on opposite sides of the fence; here are a few things we agree on.

If you open yourself up to people you believe you disagree with on the surface, you find you often moderate the way you talk about things.

Does this work out differently for women? Do they surround themselves with sycophants as often? 

I think that almost anyone who ends up in fame ends up surrounded by people who agree with them. A lot of it has to do with personality: There are plenty of narcissists who are men, and plenty who are women.

One of the things is that to control your environment you need both the narcissistic tendency and you need to have that power. All things being equal, we’re still in a society where men have more power than women, so we’re more likely to see this in men.

There are some tendencies of women to be more interdependent in their self-concept. If you ask people to come up with 20 things about themselves, on average, men tend to answer that question with independent descriptions. Like, “I am smart,” “I am tall,” “I am powerful.” Women tend to be more relational —“I am a colleague,” “I am a friend” — women tend to engage the relationship between the person and the world.

The more that you think of that relationship between yourself and others, the more likely you are to open up to a variety of opinions rather than assuming that your own capacities ought to govern what people think.

Besides celebrities and inflexible politicians, who else surrounds themselves with yes men? Who else tends to be narcissistic? CEOs maybe?

People who seek out leadership roles tend to have some qualities of narcissism. Part of being narcissistic is having a high value of your own opinion and thinking that people should listen to you. Some of those qualities are not bad ones. They become bad qualities when you absolutely refuse to be challenged – when your self-concept is being torn down by dissent. But yeah, people who engage in business leadership do that.

There’s a caricature to that: Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” has a business leader in an office building shouting out things that are supportive. We see that kind of behavior. We know it’s valuable to have people who are willing to disagree and force you to be really certain of the bases of your decision.

What’s the best balance to have?

I think that everyone needs to have at least one or two trusted friends or advisers who are willing to hold your assumptions up to the light. And engage in those kinds of difficult conversations routinely. If you find yourself primarily with people you agree with, that’s time to go out looking for some people who are willing to disagree with you.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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