3Qs: The side effects of sudden fame

In a span of 24 hours last month, Ted Williams went from living in a tent at the side of the road to nationwide celebrity. Then the formerly homeless man with a “golden voice” relapsed, entering a rehab program for alcohol abuse. Randall Colvin, associate professor of psychology at Northeastern, assesses how overnight fame, mega success and good fortune affect behavior.

Why does sudden success or wealth so often lead to self-destructive behavior?

People prefer their worlds to be predictable. It provides comfort and reduces anxiety that can result from unpredictable events. We often think that a tragic event, such as losing a limb in an accident, will result in feelings ofdespair because of the loss of physical functioning,and because people suddenly perceive themselves as being different from the person they have always been.

These same unpleasant feelings can occur as a result of extremely positive events. Winning the lottery or becoming an overnight sensation can create a personal temblor in which a person’s sense of self is shaken to the core. In the case of Ted Williams, a man bedeviledby alcoholism and homelessness, his sudden rise from panhandler to celebrity could create a disconnect between his enduring sense of self and a new, but unfamiliar, reality.

To reduce the resulting anxiety, he might attempt to alter his perceptions of self or change his current reality to get them back in alignment. Unfortunately, Mr. Williams chose the path with which he was most familiar — alcohol.

What are some of the steps a celebrity or overnight millionaire can take to guard against the pitfalls of fame?

My first piece of advice would be stay close to friends and family who provided love and support before fame arrived. My second piece of advice would be to carefully evaluate your personal values and morals, and do not change them for the sake of maintaining fame and fortune.

How does fame impact self-perception?

I think people change in at least two ways. First, people who possess a well-formed and mature identity will be less likely to succumb to the pitfalls of fame and instead might use their fame to benefit others.

Second, people whose sense of self or identity is not fully developed and remains a work in progress may be particularly vulnerable to becoming the person that the public wants them to be. I suspect this is one of many struggles that child actors experience as they grow older and try to reclaim their personal identity, which may be quite different than their public persona.