Why Caring About Celebrities Can Be Good for You

Knowing the details of their lives serves a surprising function in society.

Posted Mar 16, 2015

Maura McAndrew/Used with permission
Source: Maura McAndrew/Used with permission

More people than ever before are puzzling over the 24/7 coverage of people such as the Kardashian sisters, who are “celebrities” for no other apparent reason than we happen to know who they are.

And yet we can’t look away.

Coverage of these individuals’ lives continues because people are obviously tuning in.

Although many social critics have bemoaned this explosion of popular culture as reflecting some kind of collective character flaw, it is in fact nothing more than the inevitable outcome of the collision between 21st-century media and Stone Age minds. When you cut away its many layers, our fixation on popular culture reflects an intense interest in the doings of other people; this preoccupation with the lives of others is a byproduct of the psychology that evolved in prehistoric times to make our ancestors socially successful.

Thus, it appears that we are hardwired to be fascinated by gossip

How could an obsession with celebrities have anything to do with our evolution as human beings?, you may ask. 

Well, if we think in terms of what it would have taken to be successful in our prehistoric social environment, the idea may not seem quite so far-fetched. As far as scientists can tell, our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups in which they knew everyone else in a face-to-face, long-term kind of way. Strangers were probably an infrequent and temporary phenomenon.

Our ancestors had to cooperate with so-called in-group members for success against out-groups, but they also had to recognize that these same in-group members were their main competitors when it came to dividing limited resources. Living under such conditions, our ancestors faced a number of consistent adaptive problems, such as remembering who was a reliable, trustworthy person and who was a cheater; knowing who would be a reproductively valuable mate; and figuring out how to successfully manage friendships, alliances, and family relationships.

The social intelligence needed for success in this environment required an ability to predict and influence the behavior of others; an intense interest in the private dealings of other people would have been handy indeed, and strongly favored by natural selection. In short, people fascinated with the lives of others were simply more successful than those who were not, and it is the genes of those busybodies that have come down to us through the ages.

OK, so we can explain the intense interest that we have in other people who are socially important to us. But how can we possibly explain the seemingly useless interest that we have in the lives of reality-show contestants, movie stars, and public figures of all kinds?

One possible explanation may be found in the fact that celebrity is a relatively recent phenomenon, evolutionarily speaking. In our ancestral world, any person about whom we knew intimate details of his or her private life was, by definition, socially important to us.

Anthropologist Jerome Barkow of Dalhousie University in Canada has pointed out that evolution did not prepare us to distinguish among members of our community who have genuine effects on our life and the images and voices we are bombarded with by the entertainment industry. Thus, the intense familiarity with celebrities provided by the modern media trips the same gossip mechanisms that have evolved to keep up with the affairs of in-group members. After all, anyone whom we see that often and know that much about must be socially important to us. News anchors and television actors we see every day in soap operas become as familiar as neighbors.

In the modern world, celebrities may serve another important social function.

In a highly mobile, industrial society, they may be the only “friends” we have in common with new neighbors and coworkers. Think of them as “friends-in-law.” They provide a common interest and topic of conversation between people who otherwise might not have much to say to one another, and they facilitate the types of informal interactions that help people become comfortable in new surroundings.

Hence, keeping up with the lives of actors, politicians, and athletes can make a person more socially adept during interactions with strangers and even provide segues into social relationships with new friends in the virtual world of the Internet.

Research published in 2007 by Belgian psychologist Charlotte De Backer from the University of Antwerp (full disclosure: I was a coauthor) finds that young people even look to celebrities and popular culture for learning life strategies that would have been learned from role models within one’s tribe long ago. Teenagers in particular seem to be prone to learning how to dress, how to manage relationships, and how to be socially successful in general by tuning in to popular culture.

Andrea Raffin/Shutterstock
Source: Andrea Raffin/Shutterstock

Thus, gossip is a more complicated and socially important phenomenon than we think. When it is discussed seriously, the goal usually is to suppress the frequency with which it occurs in an attempt to avoid the undeniably harmful effects it can have in work groups and other social networks. This tendency, however, overlooks that gossip is part of who we are and an essential part of what makes groups function as well as they do.

Perhaps it may be more productive to think of gossip as a social skill rather than as a character flaw, because it is only when we do not do it well that we get into trouble.

In short, I believe we will continue to shake our heads at what we are constantly subjected to by the mass media, rationally dismissing it as irrelevant to anything that matters in our own lives. But in case you find yourself becoming just a tiny bit intrigued by some inane story about a celebrity, let yourself off the hook: After all, it is only human nature.

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