How Celebrity Culture Gets Us Psychologically Hooked
A few weeks ago, a bomb exploded the internet. Major news outlets went crazy. Twitter had numerous top trending topics on the same subject for days. People wrote long thinkpieces about how we had gotten to this point. No, I'm not talking about Donald "Grab Them By The Pussy" Trump; that would come later. On September 20, Angelina Jolie filed for divorce from Brad Pitt. And with that, one of Hollywood's biggest power couples was suddenly breaking up and breaking our hearts at the same time.
WHY GOD, WHY!? CAN NOTHING BEAUTIFUL EVER LAST?!
I had to take the rest of the day off work to read dozens of articles and find out every detail, true or not. Some people were crying over their favorite marriage ending, while others were vicariously thrilled for Jennifer Aniston, who had obviously moved on a long time ago. But one thing was clear: A lot of people were way too invested in the private lives of a couple of individuals whom they would never meet. So why do we care so much about these people's lives? What is it about celebrities that makes gossip a more than $3 billion a year industry?
We Like The World To Have A Narrative
I know many of you are running to the comments to claim you could not care less about these people, or any celebrities. But evolution says you are wrong, so suck it. Even if your homepage isn't your favorite gossip column, being aware of the goings-on in the lives of people more famous than us fills our brains' need to see patterns in the world, to make familiar storylines out of chaos. And it is a need. Some studies found that upwards of 80 to 90 percent of all conversations in public are gossip.
In my case, 64 percent is about the places I would bang Michael Fassbender.
Humans like stories because we look for the world around us to fit into a narrative -- the rags-to-riches tale, the sports underdog overcoming the odds, the karaoke hustler singing a song about sex with his daughter, etc. You saw this happen immediately with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's breakup. The original reason reported for their divorce was Pitt having an affair with his recent co-star Marion Cotillard. What goes around comes around, Angie! Once a cheater, always a cheater! People knew how to deal with that version of the story; it was nice and simple and fit into a form that we are all familiar with. When it turned out to have nothing to do with cheating and became much more complicated (like all divorces), people lost interest.
We moved on to the other 35 percent of topics: dreams we had, food we ate, and bowel movements we took.
While it might seem like this fixation is born of our fame-obsessed time, in reality, it's been around since we climbed down from the trees. In the past, we had gods and heroes filling this role. Think of the Greek deities, whose sexual exploits alone would fill a thousand tabloids. Then it was royals, military heroes, and explorers. Film stars and musicians showed up around the beginning of the 20th Century, and are merely the latest group filling this need. Who knows, your grandkids might get their rocks off gossiping about the Queen of Mars releasing a diss track about "those space station pussies."
It Helps Us Move Up In Society
In prehistoric societies, knowing who was a jerk, who was sleeping with whom, and lots of other juicy details were all important things to stay on top of if you wanted to fit into your small tribe. As situations changed in your village, it was vital to know about them as soon as possible and be able to adjust to them if necessary. These days, our monkey brains haven't advanced enough to the point where they can tell the difference in importance between gossip about people we know and celebrities. So it treats all this information with urgency, even if knowing Leonardo DiCaprio is congenitally unable to date anyone but Victoria's Secret models under the age of 25 is unlikely to aid you in getting a promotion.
"As you can see here, his chances of an Oscar nomination increased as they got progressively blonder."
But gossip can help in other ways. Even primitive tribes have hierarchies, with people looking to move up socially. In the modern world, this is often reflected in something called "status-jockeying," wherein we look to people similar to us and instinctively collect information that could change our social status. That's why studies show men care more about gossip about men, women about women, people in general about others their own age, and Ted Cruz and his many, many clones.
We want information that the "eat, fuck, kill" section of our brains believes will beat out biological competitors, and the best way to do that is to follow the lives of people like us who are successful and try to emulate them. It's why we're curious what diets starlets use to get thin and what workout regimens actors use to get buff. It's why we want to know how billionaires got rich, so that we too can mock the law with impunity. Sure, we'll almost certainly never be as hot or as rich as those famous people, but we don't need to be. We just need to use the information we learned to be hotter and better off than our direct competitors -- or the people in our Monkeysphere, if you will.
Schadenfreude Is Real
Everyone knows that schadenfreude is the most fabulous German word ever, and means "pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others." But there are conditions about when it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside to watch someone else's epic fail:
1) It benefits you.
2) It seems like the person deserved it.
3) It happens to someone you envy.
Obviously, #1 doesn't really count with celebrities, since Brad Pitt suddenly being single doesn't mean he's going to show up in your town randomly and ask you out on a date to the nearest IHOP. But those last two are the reasons we absolutely love watching people who are prettier, more successful, and seemingly happier than us suddenly become unhappy, because fuck those guys.
Hey, rich kids, guess who's going to grow up in a broken home? Welcome to reality.
A study of Chinese students hooked them up to brain scanners and told them both positive and negative rumors about themselves, their friends, and a star they claimed not to care about. Their grey matter told a different story, with the pleasure centers lighting up the most when they heard tales about celebrities doing bad things. We can't draw too many conclusions from such a small study, but anecdotal evidence supports celebrity schadenfreude as our guilty pleasure as well. For example, in 2014, when Justin Bieber was arrested for drag racing while drunk and without a license, it generated a then-record 6,100 tweets per minute -- 4.28 million in 24 hours.
Faces this pretty used to launch a thousand ships. Times have changed.
Now that we have such open access to the lives of celebrities, we are constantly comparing ourselves to them ... and usually, we're the ones found wanting, which is seriously annoying. But if we can't be as rich or as talented, we can still watch the complete breakdowns of stars like Britney Spears and Charlie Sheen with a sort of sick glee. Even when people actually die, like Amy Winehouse or Heath Ledger, it reminds us that they were flawed human beings like us. Basically, people are terrible.
The Halo Effect Makes Us Think They Are Perfect
But then there are those times we don't want to see a person fail -- when we identify with them, or love them as a couple, or simply like their work. In those cases, we stay obsessed with them because of the halo effect.
Put simply, this is our brains confusing what a person is good at with everything else. For example, just because they are a good singer, we also expect them to be a good person. And this is why celebrity advertisements are so effective. We are more likely to trust them and their opinions than we are some random guy, since we know they are good at something else. Sometimes this is relatively innocuous, like when Kanye West convinces you to buy his ridiculous ugly Adidas collection, and sometimes it is downright dangerous, like when Jenny McCarthy and her crazy eyes convince you not to vaccinate your child.
Actually, I take it back. There is nothing good or healthy about this.
We follow what celebrities do and eat and wear because deep down, part of us wants to think we could reach their level of "perfection." Since we already know our friends and family members are imperfect, we have to look to celebrities for the idea of that flawless person we want to believe exists and think we could be with relatively little effort. That's how we end up in ridiculous situations like when Ted Nugent and Miley Cyrus are asked seriously about their political opinions, as if they have important thoughts that could expand our own worldview.
Here she is holding a forum on the merits of the TPP.
That's also why it can be so crushing when seemingly good celebrities turn out to be terrible people. The world was shocked that Tiger Woods, one of the greatest athletes of all time, would cheat on the beautiful mother of his children. Because it's unheard of for rich men who travel a lot to have flings, right? Of course not. We'd expect that of half the random businessmen out there. But Woods was different. He wasn't just some guy; he was a hero to millions of people. How could he swing a golf club so well if his dick was always out?
It Makes Us Feel Like We Are Socializing
These days, celebrities can connect with their fans in a million ways, from chat show interviews to magazine spreads to actually contacting them directly on social media. And while this allows you tell the same story at every party you go to about the time Patton Oswalt favorited one of your jokes, this is a positive thing for the star as well. The more you feel like you have a relationship with them, the more likely you are to shell out cash money on their projects. So it is in their best interests to make you think you are their friend.
This does not always go according to plan.
This means forming as many parasocial, or one-sided, relationships as possible. And it totally works. When you are as likely to see a picture of John Legend and Chrissy Teigen's new baby on your feed as your best friend's, the line between them gets blurred. Suddenly, you feel like you know them, even though they see you as just another one of their followers, part of the giant void they are shouting into.
Unlike myself, who loves every single one of you. Especially you ... um ... @PorcupineEeyore.
But that doesn't have to be as bad as it seems! Since we feel like we are close to these people, when we read about their lives or tweet at them, it acts as a "psychological prosthesis" for shy or lonely people. Feeling like they have a connection to celebrities can literally act as a filler for relationships they wouldn't have otherwise. While that sounds kind of sad, psychologists assure us it's fine and healthy as long as it doesn't tip over into an obsession.
So don't worry, guys who guard Michael Fassbender, I'm totally safe. Though maybe don't check my browsing history.
Find out who the next contenders for faking their own deaths are in 5 Celebrities Who Hate Fame More Than Kanye Loves It and become obsessed with these bizarre celebrities habits in 5 Bizarre Celebrity Quirks You Can Never Unsee.
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