Mourning the loss of a loved one is a human experience that most people have experienced, but realizing this experience is shared by everyone does not make it any easier. The death of a celebrity is very similar because even though a person may have never met the celebrity, they still go through some sort of grieving process. When Kobe Bryant, a legendary NBA player and devoted father of four, and his daughter, Gianna, died on January 26, 2020 in a helicopter crash, people around the world mourned his loss and felt true grief even though the vast majority of these people had never actually met him (Holt, 2020).
Psychologists are very interested in how people deal with death because it can be such a life changing experience, and many psychological theories can be applied to death, specifically in this instance, the death of Kobe Bryant. Some of the theories that can be clearly applied to this situation are the tend and befriend response, mortality salience, and motivated skepticism. These theories help explain how and why people acted in the ways they did after learning about the death of Bryant.
One of the theories that relates very well to how people reacted to Bryant’s death is the tend and befriend response. The tend and befriend response is a way people react to stress by engaging in nurturing activities that are intended to protect oneself and one’s children, referred to as tending, and then developing social networks that supply protection from possible threats, referred to as befriending (Aronson, Wilson, Akert, Sommers, 2013).
The tend and befriend response is a way that people are able to cope with stress by convincing themselves that they and their loved ones are safe, and by connecting with others to combat larger threats than they could alone. One reason that people, especially women engage in more nurturing activities and spending time with their loved ones after stress is because studies have shown that the hormone oxytocin may be released in times of stress, and this hormone has been found to “support relaxation and decrease feelings of fear” (Taylor, Klein, Lewis, Gruenewald, Gurung, Updegraff, 2000). By focusing more on how to protect their own children after seeing Bryant die along with his daughter Giana, people were able to be a little calmer and a less fearful.
Another study by Rena Repetti, demonstrated that following a difficult day at work women “displayed increased levels of nurturing behavior toward their children” (Dess, 2000). Women especially seem to handle stress better when they are able to put that stress-induced energy into caring for their children. For example, after people heard about Bryant’s death and began to process it, they felt the need to be close with their family and hold their children close. People became a little more protective of their children because that was a way for them to deal with the stressful energy that they were feeling. One man being interviewed about Kobe’s death even said that after the news broke of Bryant’s death, he saw a lot of parents have that “cold feeling like I need to find my kid” (Cook, 2020).
Parents became hyper focused on the protection of their kids because of the extreme stress they felt after seeing how Bryant and his daughter died, and there was nothing Bryant could have done to save her. The befriending aspect of this response has also been shown in many types of stressful situations. For example, in a group for women with late stage breast cancer, the women felt like having a social network to talk through their feelings with helped them learn how to better handle their stress, and even though some women in the group have passed away these women are able to come together to support one another and strengthen each other (Schroeder, 2017).
Furthermore, studies have shown that connecting with friends or other reassuring people in times of extreme stress decreases sympathetic and neuroendocrine responses to stress, and this aids in the recovery of the harmful psychological results of acute stress. (Taylor, et al.,2000). After going through a stressful time with supportive people, one may also feel closer to those who supported them during that time (DeKeyser Ganz, 2012). Many people came together in large groups to support each other and pay tribute to Bryant after his death by having memorial sites where people could join together to pray, think about Bryant’s life and quite possibly their own lives, and place flowers, pictures, signs and other items to show their love and support.
Many people came to these various sites as a group, but even those who came alone felt the support of hundreds of other people dealing with their same pain when they saw the countless memorial items placed at the sites. People even came together at a public memorial service for Bryant at the Lakers’ stadium where they could come together in a huge social network of people all coming for the same reason: to cope with the death of someone they love and are inspired by. By having so many social support systems, people could rely on others to help them grieve, which could have greatly lessened the pain people felt after Bryant died.
Another theory that applies to this event, is mortality salience, which is a reference to a psychological state where a person is deliberately and knowingly thinking about his or her own death (“Mortality Salience,” 2016). Mortality salience is related to the terror management theory, which states that people’s self-esteem acts as a protection against alarming and scary thoughts about their own mortality (Aronson, et al., 2013).
Psychology researchers believe, for example, that when people’s awareness of their limited life on earth becomes heightened, they increase their beliefs in a cultural view of the world that allows a symbolic sense of self that will last long after their death. To achieve this, people must also feel that others value them and that they have made a significant impact on their culture, thus allowing them to be deserving of that enduring symbolic sense of self (Routledge, Ostafin, Juhl, Sedikides, Cathey, Liao, 2010).
Therefore, researchers basically believe that people need to have a healthy and positive self-esteem. People felt like Bryant had a meaningful, positive impact on the world, so he deserved to be remembered for generations after his death, so people began to do tributes to Bryant. For example, many professional athletes wrote Bryant’s number on their shoes and thousands of people donated to the Mamba Foundation created by Bryant, whose goal was to generate a positive influence on kids’ lives through sports.
Specifically, by donating to Bryant’s foundation, people ensured that Bryant’s legacy would last forever allowing him to symbolically live on forever in the eyes of others. In regard to self-esteem, studies have shown that thinking about death causes difficulties in psychological functioning for people who do not have adequate levels of self-esteem, and this effect is demonstrated in multiple cultures (Routledge,et al., 2010). The effect of Kobe’s death was also shown in many cultures in countries throughout the world as newspaper headlines were filled with images of Bryant, and people around the world created their own sites for Bryant memorials.
Furthermore, a study demonstrated that adequate levels of self-esteem promoted the maintenance of life satisfaction and vitality when these two factors of psychological well-being were confronted by thoughts of the transitory nature of one’s life (Routledge,et al., 2010). When the news broke of Bryant’s death and for days and weeks after, people were constantly bombarded by thoughts of death, and one of the only and best ways to cope with these uncomfortable thoughts is to increase one’s own self esteem. For instance, people began to think of what their own legacy would be after they died, and if they had negative self-esteem and believed no one would remember them after their death, then these thoughts becoming increasingly bothersome.
However, others who had sufficient levels self-esteem, tried to ensure that they were making a positive, lasting impact on the lives of others, which made these thoughts of death feel a little less scary. For example, many people coped by focusing on how Kobe inspired them to better fathers, and they spent more time with their kids showing them how much they care for them and love them. By participating in these loving behaviors with their kids, these dads and moms could be satisfied that their memory will live on through the lives of their children.
Motivated skepticism is another theory that also applies to Bryant’s death. Motivated skepticism refers to how one thinks and processes information when something favorable happens compared to something unfavorable. When something favorable happens to us we are more accepting of those facts and are not motivated to think critically about it, but when something unfavorable happens we are highly motivated to think critically and disprove what happened. For example, a study was done where subjects read an explanation of TAA deficiency.
Then half of the subjects were informed that if they had this deficiency their paper would change color to dark green, and the other half of subjects were informed that if they had the deficiency the paper would stay the same color. The results showed that people who found out they had the TAA deficiency gave a lower rating of the seriousness of the deficiency and gave a lower rating of the accuracy of the test. This experiment clearly shows that when something negative happens, such as an unfavorable medical diagnosis, people are much more likely to question the result and think critically about how the result was achieved (Ditto, Lopez, 1992).
This experiment is closely related to how people reacted to the news of Bryant’s death because when people saw the news headlines, they were extremely shocked and upset, and many people questioned whether the headlines were actually true. For example, players at an NFL game were interviewed after the news came out, and many of them stated that they questioned the validity of the story and were trying to get more information (Bushnell, 2020). However, if there was a news story saying that Bryant was on a helicopter with his daughter flying to her basketball game and that they recently arrived at the game safely no one would have questioned this at all because it seems normal, and the result of the trip would have been favorable.
Death is something that affects all people in a profound way, and when it is the death of a celebrity that someone is coping with that pain is very real. Coping and processing the death can be related to ways people process the death of loved ones because both can cause people to deal with the stress through the tend and befriend response where people cope by being close with and taking care of their loved ones.
Both situations can also relate to mortality salience because the thoughts of death are now more frequent, and people need to use self-esteem as a buffer for these thoughts. Motivated skepticism is also related to these situations because when someone dies it is almost like we do not want to believe it and question what happened, especially if the death is tragic and unexpected. The death of a celebrity is hard to cope with because in some ways the person seems immortal because we have built them up as a larger than life hero in our own minds.