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Why Our Brains are Wired to Follow Celebrity Medical Advice—and Why You Should Get a Reality Check from Your Doctor

August 26, 2019 - Rhys Branman, MD

It may seem obvious that you shouldn’t rely on a famous face with no medical training to tell you how to take care of yourself, but celebrities have a way of easily convincing us of their expertise.

Unfortunately, while sharing favorite skincare products or tips for nailing your workout may be harmless, many celebrities are slinging medical advice that is downright questionable.

Why do we trust celebrities?

Actors, musicians, and even beloved Instagram celebrities have a very public platform with which to spread their ideas and opinions. And while it stands to reason that fans who admire them would give weight to their words, it still boggles the mind when blatantly bad advice is taken as fact.

However, it may not be a voluntary decision. According to studies, humans are hardwired to trust what celebrities have to say. Specifically, classical conditioning leads us to transfer positive feelings we have about a person’s success in one area (such as acting) to all areas (such as health). Thus, if a talented, attractive actress we are fond of advocates for a specific practice, we are naturally inclined to believe their suggestion has value, regardless of the facts.

When you add in cognitive dissonance (not wanting to experience the negativity of having an opposing viewpoint) and herd behavior, it’s the perfect formula for holding celebrities as experts in all fields—and it may be dangerous.

Famously bad advice

The rich and famous are becoming somewhat notorious for doling out advice that is pretty problematic. Here are but a few examples:

From jade eggs to iodine supplements

Gwyneth Paltrow has been in the limelight for nearly 30 years, though she’s focused much of her time over the last ten years on Goop, an increasingly popular lifestyle brand, blog, and, now, magazine. Unfortunately, some of the advice Goop contributors are offering require you to waste money on unproven products (that $300 shower head probably isn’t necessary to lead a healthy life) or worse, lead to health problems. For example, recently Goop suggested iodine supplements should be added to your wellness plan. The problem? Too much iodine can harm thyroid function and be dangerous for some people—and most Americans get plenty through diet, which the “medical medium” they interviewed failed to mention.

Who needs anti-depressants?

It may be a dated reference, but who doesn’t remember Tom Cruise’s famous tirade on mental health in the early ‘00s? Repeatedly during interviews, the popular actor claimed expertise on the field of psychiatry and denounced the use of medication to help treat mental illness. It’s safe to say he was wrong.

Vax-panic

Jenny McCarthy has been under fire for years for her misleading, anti-vaccine rhetoric, and it is obvious that she is passionate about the topic. The problem is that many see her, and other celebrities, as being well-informed messengers—and some believe her fervent commitment to the cause has contributed to resurgences in previously eradicated diseases.

Celebrities are being called to task

Thankfully, we’re starting to question the quality of the advice we’re hearing from our favorite celebrities. Gwyneth Paltrow and her wellness empire have gotten a lot of flack in recent years for bizarre, tenuous, or downright unhealthy medical advice. Recently, things escalated when the Truth in Advertising group petitioned California regulators to investigate Goop for making health and wellness claims without evidence.

Last year, the Kardashians got similar attention from Truth in Advertising regarding their promotion of health and fitness products and supplements online without disclosing posts as advertorial.

When in doubt, ask your doc

We don’t believe celebrities have malicious intent; we can all be a little fanatical when we truly believe in something. And we’re sure there is some good advice floating around—certainly, Goop offers some fantastic healthy recipes, exercise tips, and information about taking care of your mental wellbeing. Ultimately, it falls upon us to determine when it’s okay to listen and when we should defer to our physicians. Remember, your doctor has had years of education and specialized training, on top of having an understanding of your personal health.

While there are a variety of paths to optimal health, it’s important that you are being safe. Extreme diets, strange devices, and new products should all be approached with a healthy dose of cynicism—and we can say with confidence that your doctor would prefer for you to “bother” them with questions about a practice before just going into it blindly. So, pick up the phone, fill out a contact form, or send a letter before taking celebrity medical advice. Your doctor, and your health, will thank you!

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