Who do you think you know?


You know that Nigella Lawson?

No. You don’t. But I bet you could close your eyes and picture her if you tried.

You know her face, recognize her voice, and probably know at least 3 distinct facts about her.

The whole cocaine thing seems to have shocked people, because that doesn’t sound like something she’d do.

Similarly, if I made up ten different stories about David Attenborough, I would bet a year’s salary that 90% of people (including me) would agree on which stories were out of character for him.

Not something she’d do? Out of character for him?

These are people you’ve never met or even spoken to, yet you seem to feel you know them. At least a little.

Just as importantly, you see them on their own, seemingly looking right at you, and talking just to you. You, them, no one else.

And yet, they have never spoken to you at all, because, like public speakers or bands, they are talking to everyone and no one at the same time.

So, while in reality they have no idea you exist, it doesn’t feel that way. And now you feel like they might know you a little.

Now, think of the work colleague that you reckon you know the least.

You know, the one you’ve shared a room with 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 3 years, but have never had an actual conversation with.

Could you say the same about this faceless, hapless coworker?

Could you repeat the above David Attenborough exercise with them?

Would finding out they did cocaine shock you?

No, no and no?

So, you feel no connection whatsoever with the person you’ve shared a small enclosed space with for years, while you feel you know the person you’ve never met, and never will.

Isn’t that really, really strange?

Why do we do this?

It made sense at the time…

I think we do it because our minds evolved to cope with life as hunter-gatherers and haven’t changed much since then.

I suspect our subconscious still works by applying rules of thumb that served us well previously:

  • If you see a face or voice repeatedly, this person is part of the tribe
  • If you’ve only seen them behaving a certain way, you can justifiably assume they behave like this all the time
  • If everyone else confirms this, you probably know their character
  • If this person you recognize is looking into your eyes and talking, then obviously (i) they can see you (ii) they know you and (iii) they are talking directly to you

Before TV, or theatre, or realistic paintings of individuals, the above assumptions were entirely reasonable – how could you possibly have a familiar face looking at you, or talking to you, unless you knew each other?

Obviously nobody (sane) consciously thinks that celebrities are talking to them individually – no one with a properly functioning mind would say:

Good point Nigella, I WILL ensure I use only the freshest of cantaloupes


You’re right David, it IS difficult to watch cheetahs being chased off their kills by opportunistic hyenas”.

But subconsciously? I think it’s entirely possible.

If modern society is made up of modern humans with decidedly un-modern minds, I think it likely that this explains the very existence of the celebrity (and maybe even the fictional character).

If you don’t agree, it doesn’t matter.

I know I’m right.

Brian Cox told me so.

– Kevin Morrison, copywriter

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