Opinion vs facts: why do celebrities so often get it wrong?

Celebrities often make wildly inaccurate claims and comments to millions of people. But the workings of our minds mean weíre all prone to such behaviour

I remember reading my parentsí newspaper one day as a teenager, shortly after Princess Diana died. One of the readerís letters in it has stuck with me ever since. I donít recall the exact wording, but it was something like this.

ďElton Johnís recent tribute to Princess Diana ďCandle in the WindĒ was number one in the charts for five weeks. Itís been reported as the bestselling single of all time. But Bryan Adamís ď(Everything I do) I do it for youĒ was number one for 14 weeks. How can it be number one for less than half the time and still be a bigger selling single? It doesnít make senseĒ

Even as a naÔve teenager, I was struck by the ignorance of this. Half the UK population bought Candle in the Wind on the day of release, so itís hardly surprising that the market was saturated much faster. You donít need to sell the most ever to top the charts, just the most that week. A battery-powered torch will last longer than a nuclear blast, but that doesnít make it more powerful.

Perhaps itís unfair to judge the letter writer? Not everyone is capable of such rational analysis, and maybe they were too busy or embarrassed to look into it further. But they clearly had the time and confidence to go to the effort of PUTTING IT IN A NATIONAL NEWSPAPER! Itís almost impressive, to be so confident in your own incorrect conclusions that you actively want to share them with the world like this.

Flash forward nearly two decades to a point when everyone has their own Facebook/Tumblr/Twitter/blog etc., and itís pretty much the norm. And it seems that having a bigger audience just makes you more confident. Just this week weíve seen stories about Lily Allen questioning the teaching of Pythagorasís theorem and Kanye West randomly declaring that Bill Cosby is innocent. And itís only Wednesday. Lily Allen, in her defence, was asking a reasonable question, but unless Kanye West has extensive legal training, his comments could be described as ďill informedĒ.


Logically, youíd maybe hope that the bigger the audience you have, the more careful youíd be when stating opinions as fact, especially if they fly in the face of accepted wisdom. Obviously, this isnít what happens at all. Itís not just celebrities either, pretty much anyone with a media platform can end up confidently stating something as fact which turns out to be anything but, like claiming that eating curry with rice and chips is a new idea, or condemning people for anthropomorphising a horse while anthropomorphising a horse (wrongly, as it happens). Having access to a platform doesnít make you more likely to be right, it seems to just give you more confidence to be objectively wrong. I include myself in this, of course; Iíve been writing these posts for the Guardian for over three years, so itís virtually certain that Iíve got dozens of things wrong, probably on multiple occasions.

Why would people be so willing to risk being publicly wrong? Thatís assuming they consider the possibility at all. Of course, these days we canít rule out that theyíre doing it on purpose, just to cause upset and outrage which leads to increased web traffic. But often high-profile figures end up apologising for their comments, suggesting that they did actually mean them at the time.

Without being too harsh, the Dunning-Kruger effect must be considered. Achieving high profile or celebrity status in the modern world is no indication of intelligence, and the effect shows that ďlow intelligenceĒ is often accompanied by increased confidence in ones opinions and an apparent inability to accurately judge your own abilities and expertise in comparison to others. A willingness to present your poorly-thought-out conclusions as cast iron facts would be an inevitable consequence of this.

However, low intelligence is just one (probably needlessly harsh) explanation. The inner workings of our brains mean everyone has an inflated view of the validity of their own opinion. Our own memories are regularly tweaked and adjusted with an egotistical bent, to bolster our own sense of self-worth. As a result we put far more stock in our own views and conclusions than an objective view would warrant.


A positive feedback cycle could easily increase the odds of this happening. Positive reinforcement is the basic subconscious form of learning where behaviour that is rewarded is increased. Itís basic associative learning. So if someone who expresses their opinion entreatingly or eloquently ends up being given their own newspaper column which pays them for doing so, then of course itís going to encourage this exact behaviour. Even the most intelligent people can succumb to such fundamental processes.

Itís probably even more likely for big celebrities to start believing their own hype. If youíre surrounded by PAs, agents and reputation managers, all of whom are seemingly dedicated to preventing any form of criticism or negativity getting back to you, then of course youíre going to start thinking youíre right about everything and that everyone agrees with you. When youíre at the point where you think itís reasonable to demand a room for your wigs, assuming everyone agrees with you must be a given. The invention of Twitter or Instagram just means such people can now reach the public directly, so their comments arenít filtered through the many layers of people who exist specifically to stop exactly this sort of thing from happening.

Whatís perhaps even more surprising is how effective all this can be. Confidence is very convincing to your average human. A wrong conclusion expressed with confidence can be far more convincing than an accurate one conveyed hesitantly or nervously, which explains a lot about modern politics.

Celebrities and other high profile types can also be seen as ďlegitimate authority figuresĒ. Theyíve achieved a lot of wealth/fame/success, so logically they must know what theyíre doing, or that would mean the world isnít fair. Someone being seen as a legitimate authority figure means the things they say are more convincing than if others were to make the same statement. And so people go along with it.

When you take all of this together, itís quite easy to see how high profile figures can end up saying the inaccurate or wrong things to vast audiences with no shame or hesitation.

You might even think many of the things written here are completely wrong. Luckily, I can say Iím just providing a useful example of the very issue being discussed. Or Iím making a very clever meta-joke. Whoís to say for certain?

About 96% of Dean Burnettís tweets are wrong in some way. @garwboy

The Idiot Brain by Dean Burnett (Guardian Faber, £12.99). To order a copy for £7.99, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

Fittingly, this piece was corrected on 10 February to give the full context and a fairer representation of Lily Allenís comments on the teaching of Pythagorasís theorem.