The Scientific Reason Why We're Obsessed With Celebrity Drama
Whether it’s Orlando Bloom’s thoughts on Prince Harry, the selling price of Miley Cyrus’ LA mansion, or the frequency in which Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis bathe themselves and their children, there’s no shortage of celebrity gossip floating around the internet.
But seriously, who cares? Celebrities are complete strangers to the vast majority of the people consuming information about their lives. So why bother keeping up with them?
Why Did We Bother Keeping Up with the Kardashians for 14 Years?
As it turns out, there’s a science behind our infatuation with celebrity gossip – our brains are wired to be intrigued by it. But first, let’s define it: gossip involves relaxed, informal, and entertaining discussions about people who aren’t present in that moment. It comprises as much as 65% of our conversations, if not more. Some psychologists suggest that gossip is the “glue that binds social groups together” or a mechanism for connecting with one another, suggesting it might be an evolutionary adaptation.
Just as being attracted to certain kinds of people serves an evolutionary function, so too does gossiping. It helped us “survive and thrive” in our prehistoric days.
Our ancestors lived in small communities where everybody knew each other, and strangers didn’t come by very often. Not only did they have to cooperate with locals to succeed against out-group communities, but they also had to figure out how to navigate the in-group, as these were their main competitors amid limited resources. As such, they had to decipher who was a reliable partner to exchange with, who was untrustworthy, who would make a good mate, and how to manage relationships and alliances. An interest to acquire information about the private lives of others would have been favored by natural selection; being able to predict and influence others’ behaviors would facilitate success in competitive environments. The people who gossiped, or were “interested” in others’ affairs, were more successful than those who didn’t – these are the genes that have been passed down to us.
The people who gossiped were more successful than those who didn’t, and their genes have been passed down.
Not all gossip is interesting. For example, college students don’t really care to hear about or spread information pertaining to the academic awards of their professors. However, the same kind of information about friends and romantic partners interests them and is more likely to get shared around. Relatedly, positive information about high-status individuals comes across as fairly dull and is unlikely to be a topic of conversation; we’d much prefer to learn about and discuss their scandals and misfortunes. However, positive information about those dearest to us is both interesting and likely to get shared with others. If our tendency to gossip evolved as a way to acquire information that would benefit us in navigating our social surroundings, then it makes sense to maximize on positive information relating to family and friends (our allies), and negative information regarding potential rivals (those above us in the social ladder).
One study found that people “were happier to hear positive gossip and more annoyed to hear negative gossip about themselves than about celebrities and best friends.” And although their personal ratings would suggest they weren’t happy to hear negative celebrity gossip, the enhanced neural activity in the brain’s reward system suggested they were in fact amused by it.
The Best Gossip Is about Our Competitors
The gossip we find most interesting is about people of the same sex and around the same age as us. Dr. Frank McAndrew highlights that, to the 18-year-old caveman, knowing the business of other 18-year-old men would have been more valuable than attending to information about much older men or women. This is because other men of roughly the same age would be their competitors in the “dating” market. And information about their private lives, such as gambling habits or difficulties performing sexually, could be exploited to get a leg-up in one’s own social standing.
There are some noteworthy sex differences though. Interest in the lives of other same-sex individuals is more pronounced among women. Compared to men, women report gossiping more, experience greater enjoyment from gossiping, and find greater value in it. Some researchers suggest that gossiping might be women’s favored intrasexual competition strategy, or “weapon of choice” in the context of mate competition. While women tend to gossip about physical appearances and social information (such as affairs, relationships, the daily happenings of others’ lives), men are more likely to gossip about others’ achievements (such as grades, salaries, and successes). Women also share gossip differently than men do. Men are more likely to share gossip with their romantic partners over other people, but women are equally likely to share gossip with their gals and romantic partners.
Why Do We Gossip about Celebrities?
The science behind gossip would suggest that it evolved as a way to help us navigate human social systems, such as competing for mates or protecting our communities from potentially threatening out-group members. So, what’s with our interest in celebrity gossip? For most of us, celebrities have no influence over our private lives. One possible reason for this fascination is the novelty of celebrities; they simply didn’t exist in our ancestral environments. As Dr. McAndrew highlights, if there were people whom we had intimate and private information about, then those people must have been socially important members of our in-group.
Dr. Jerome Barkow proposes that evolution didn’t prepare us to handle the information we’re constantly bombarded with online, such as differentiating news about members of our in-group who could directly influence our lives and similar information about people in the entertainment industry whom we have no immediate connection to. So, when we become familiarized with celebrities and learn the details of their lives, it likely triggers the same brain mechanisms that evolved to keep us informed about our community members. After seeing him on TV every day for years, the weatherman might start to feel like a socially important and familiar friend – he’s probably not – but we wouldn’t step back to reevaluate this if there were a juicy story about his life circulating on the internet.
When we learn about celebrities, it triggers the same brain mechanisms that evolved to keep us informed about our intimate communities.
Celebrities might serve other social functions as well. For example, they might seem like our only “friends” if we have more commonalities with them than with people from our own communities. Further, they can be a topic of conversation between people who don’t have much else to talk about. So, if two people are complete strangers to each other, but know of the same actors, politicians, musicians, or athletes, celebrity gossip can serve as an “ice breaker” and allow these strangers to interact more easily. Young people also look up to celebrities for guidance on how to dress, deal with relationships, and achieve success. Once upon a time, we would have referred to successful tribe members for these types of life lessons. But today, all sorts of information are immediately available at our fingertips. Hearing Selena Gomez’s dating advice might be more appealing than hearing what one’s great-grandmother has to say on the subject.
There’s a reason why we’re so fascinated by the lives of celebrities, and it’s not so much that we have nothing better to do. An entire science dedicated to the study of gossip would suggest that it's an innate part of who we are and critical to social functioning. However, gossip has the power to destroy people’s reputations and livelihoods. In the words of Dr. McAndrew, “successful gossiping is about being a good team player and sharing key information with others in a way that will not be perceived as self-serving and about understanding when to keep your mouth shut.” While celebrity news websites don’t exactly care for this, at the very least, we as individuals can try to abide by this philosophy in our day-to-day lives.
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