I’ve never seen a movie featuring either Brad Pitt or his soon-to-be ex-wife, Angelina Jolie, and yet I’m not immune to the draw of celebrity gossip. Though I have trouble telling Brad from Chris Hemsworth, I still want to know what happened with Brangelina.
I’m not alone, and there is a scientific reason for the obsession. In fact, our brains adapted long ago to be deeply interested in the beautiful and famous among us, says Daniel Kruger, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. Just consider our close relative, the monkey. Scientists at Duke University made four monkeys sit at a computer and look at pictures of other monkeys they knew. Each time they looked at a picture, they received a certain amount of cherry juice. They got more juice for looking at pictures of lower-status monkeys and less juice for pictures of the alpha monkeys. The monkeys loved the juice, and yet were willing to sacrifice it for a glimpse at the alphas. They were transfixed by their power. (This is a metaphor for the past week on Twitter.)
In prehistoric times, our ancestors lived in societies of around 200 people and it was important to know what everyone was up to. You had to know who you could trust, who was strong, and who could teach you how to be like them. All this could help you get ahead. “People who didn’t care what people were up to just didn’t do very well,” says Frank McAndrew, an evolutionary psychologist at Knox College. “We’re the descendants of the ones who gossiped, so we’re programmed to pay attention to people who are socially important.”
Our brains still work that way, even though nowadays 200 people seems small even for a Twitter following. Gossip is exciting because gossip is useful, says McAndrew. Knowing who’s cheating helps you decide who not to date, for example. When it comes to the rich and famous, we keep tabs on them because they might reveal the secrets to success. On some level, our brains really do believe that stars are just like us and that lessons from millionaires can improve our own sad lives. “We’re really interested in stories about successful people because we think that by looking at people doing well, maybe you can learn something by figuring out their secrets,” says McAndrew. Teens in particular pay attention to famous people to figure out how to dress, how to be popular, how to manage relationships.
Knowing a lot about someone — and it’s almost impossible not to casually learn about celebrities — tricks us into thinking they matter, even if you don’t consciously care. (This explains why I was interested in Brangelina even though I can hardly be counted a fan.) These relationships, where we know a lot about celebrities and they could not care less about us, are called “parasocial interaction.” Between media and television and movies, parasocial interaction is increasingly common, and it’s really easy to feel like Brad and Angelina are actually part of our tribe. Tabloids have been following the marriage for over a decade now. They’re both A-listers in their own, which adds extra oomph. We “know” Brangelina’s origin story. We “know” their kids. It seems like we “know” them.
All that said, it’s undeniable some people read TMZ religiously while others go out of their way to brag that they have no idea who Brad Pitt is. It’s likely that different personality traits contribute to different amounts of interest in celebrity gossip, according to Kruger, the Michigan psychologist. People who are naturally more curious might be more inclined to care. People who score as “neurotic” on personality tests might be prone to checking up on others because they get anxious if they don’t know what’s going on and want to make sure they foresee any kind of threat.
In the end, celebrity news doesn’t matter at all to our day-to-day lives. But dishing a little doesn’t hurt, given that people can care about more than one thing at once. Celebrity gossiping is a remnant of a behavior that helped us stay alive, and it continues conversations around topics like marriage and gender norms. Anyway: if anyone has insider information about what happened with Brangelina, let me know.