Why do we care about people like 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.
A Social Skill
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 our Stone Age minds. Our DNA is obviously slower than the fast changes happening in contemporary society, so we often face such clashes. 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.(If you have questions about this, go to Ask the Monsters).
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.
Understanding Who Is A Friend And Who Is An Enemy
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.
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.
Research published in 2007 by Belgian psychologist Charlotte De Backer from the University of Antwerp 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.
Thus, gossip is a more complicated and socially important phenomenon than we think. 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.
This article is based on Why Caring About Celebrities Can Be Good For You by Frank McAndrew.