We’ve all done it—spent the afternoon studying the evolution of Rhianna’s nose, or rehashing the highlights of Taylor Swift’s latest twitter feud. Psychologists call this addiction “para-social” behavior—basically, a one-sided relationship. What’s in it for us?
Monkeys might not read gossip rags, but we can learn from the way primates pay careful attention to dominant individuals in their group. When a junior bonobo observes the relationship status and food-sharing habits of an alpha male, it gathers information which allow it to forge social connections.
When we hunger for celebrity gossip, our brain is tapping into an ancient hunter-gatherer instinct: the more we know about the behavior of those at the top, the better we can navigate the social scene. We study celebrities in order to step into their shoes, and to gain insider information which we can use to leverage our relationships with others.
In short, we all have an inner stalker. A 2003 study found that 1/3 of the population experience “borderline-pathological’ levels of “Celebrity Worship Syndrome.” Gossip magazines are placed at check-out lines to catch us at our most vulnerable moments—when we’re bored, and experiencing willpower-depletion after having to choose between countless different products.
That said, it’s not all bad. Celebrity gossip, especially Hollywood gossip, gives us an outlet for our desires and frustrations, and it provides us a with a shared vocabulary. In the end, it’s not really about Kylie Jenner’s birthday budget or Channing Tatum’s latest breakup. It’s about us.