Psychology of Success and Demise: Why Celebrities Create Scandals

Jesse Jackson Jr. faced up to 57 years of jail time, and lost all professional credibility for misusing campaign funds to pay for living expenses and purchase items like “stuffed animals, elk heads and fur capes.” While his indulgences may seem particularly, well, laughable, he’s not alone in the hall of shame for ruining a lifetime career or family for petty gratification.When Tiger Woods admitted his numerous infidelities, he lost his professional ranking and the respect of thousands of fans, not to mention hefty sponsorships from four major companies and advertising privileges from others. In the fallout of the investigation of his doping, Lance Armstrong was banned from participating in sports and stripped of all results he had obtained from 1998 to the present. The beloved Martha Stewart traded her successful empire for an orange jumpsuit and time behind bars when she participated in insider trading (though repeatedly denied it). Let’s not even get started on businessmen and politicians – Nixon and the Watergate Scandal, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme – the list of people who have risked everything and lost goes on and on. But the real question is, why would these otherwise successful people commit such actions, knowing very well how much they have to lose?

Asking the question of why successful people do stupid things once they've become successful might be misleading; perhaps we should be looking at why people who do stupid things become successful in the first place. If becoming successful and committing such reckless actions have a common cause, then these scandals become less of a surprise and more of an inevitability. Take Lance Armstrong, for example – his arguably stupid decision to dope helped him succeed in the first place – he didn’t just make a stupid decision after he had reached the top.

So what are the potential traits that link success and risky behavior? One obvious answer is narcissism. Simply put, narcissists have a grandiose sense of self-worth, always putting themselves first in order to get ahead. While a certain amount of what Freud would call “self-love” is important, some people classify narcissism as a personality disorder and/or mental illness. In her book, Why is it Always About You?, Sandy Hotchkiss outlines what she calls the “7 Deadly Sins of Narcissism,” which include shamelessness, arrogance, envy, entitlement, and exploitation. When you take someone who is highly motivated by envy and give them arrogance and a sense of entitlement, they will push their way to the top. But these character traits don’t just disappear when success is obtained; if anything, the success acts as validation for the methods used and a self-perpetuating cycle is started until a news source catches a whiff and the whole story is exposed.

When analyzing scandalous stories like those mentioned above, we shouldn’t immediately think, “Why would those people do something like that?” as though their behavior is aberrant. Rather, we should let their sad tales spark a discussion about how their behavior is related to how they became successful in the first place, and what other skeletons they might have in their closet, hidden at various points during their journey to the top. Of course, some people are genuinely stupid and make costly mistakes for no reason. But considering the rate of incidence of scandal among highly successful people such as actors, politicians and elite athletes, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to hypothesize a link between their success and their demise.


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Posted by Madeline Ford on Mar 4, 2013

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