We all feel the magnetic pull of celebrities—we track them, know their net worth, their tastes in furniture, the absurd names of their pets and children. We go under the knives of cosmetic surgeons to look like them. We feel personal connections with them, are let down by their moral failings, care about their tragedies. As I write, my family of musical fanatics is mourning the death of Cory Monteith. We not only feel for the pointless loss of a talented young actor, and for his girlfriend, Lea Michelle, but in some confused, inchoate way, also feel heartbroken for Finn and Rachel, the characters they play on Glee.
Why the obsession? Because we’re primates with vested interests in tracking social hierarchies and patterns of social affiliation. And celebrities provide our primate minds with stimulating gyrations of hierarchy and affiliation (who is sleeping with, feuding with, out-earning whom). Celebrities also reflect the peculiar distance we have traveled culturally since our hominid past, and reveal how distorted our minds can become in our virtual world. We obsess over celebrities because, for better or worse, we feel a deep personal sense of connection with people who aren’t real.
For all primates, no matter how rich the ecosystem, resources are finite and competition can be fierce. Numerous primate species have evolved dominance hierarchies, which ritualize unequal resource distribution. Take savanna baboons, a species I have studied in Africa for 30 years. They live in groups of dozens of animals, and the most defining fact of life for a baboon is his or her rank in a sex-specific dominance hierarchy. Social status is always on a baboon’s mind. Even when going about their daily business, baboons are frequently glancing at dominant individuals.
Why is rank so important to a baboon? For one thing, a stable dominance system is a huge social convenience—it insures bloody teeth and claws don’t reign each time a potential conflict arises. Instead, everyone knows his or her place, and if, say, something to eat is discovered, a dominant individual typically needs to do nothing more than glare at a subordinate to get the prize. The dominance ranking system also influences who a baboon mates with, whose genes are going to be passed on in their offspring. It greatly influences who a baboon will form a coalitional partnership with. After all, who’d you want to have your back in a fight—the schlub of a low-ranking baboon snoozing by the bushes, or the alpha male who’s been on the cover of Baboon magazine?
Humans don’t have the strict dominance hierarchies seen in baboons. For one thing, we simultaneously belong to multiple hierarchies and most value the hierarchy in which we rank highest (think of the lowly clerk in a corporation who captains the company softball team). Still, over the course of human evolution, assessing social dominance and subordinance has been a ubiquitous feature of our interactions; it’s deep-set in our brains. In a study by Nicholas Rule, a University of Toronto psychology professor, subjects viewed pictures of faces with either stereotypically high- or low-status expressions. People could correctly identify the status even when viewing pictures for 40 milliseconds. That’s 40-thousandths of a second.
Ten-month-olds are already attuned to dominance, as shown in a cool study by Lotte Thomsen of Harvard. On a computer screen, a big square and little square independently move from one side of the screen to the other. To tap into the infant’s social brain, the squares have eyes and a mouth—they’re personified, they want to get to the other side. At some point, they come from opposite sides and head straight toward each other—they’re going to bump! Will one of them give way? Infants look more intently at this scenario than when the squares don’t get in each other’s way—social conflict is interesting. Half the time it would be the little square which would lie down and give way to the big one, half the time the big one would give way. When it’s the big square groveling in the dirt submissively, infants look far longer—hey, that guy’s supposed to win the interaction, he’s bigger. (The study includes subtle controls that show the 10-month olds are responding to status and not just the fact that big objects exert more physical force on small objects).
Brain-imaging reflects our fascination with dominance relations. When subjects evaluate social status from facial cues, they activate the fanciest, most recently evolved part of the brain, the frontal cortex (more specifically, subregions called the ventrolateral, ventromedial, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices). These regions are activated when people are figuring out consistent status relations, where Person A always trumps Person B. As shown by Caroline Zink of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development, if A and B keep flip-flopping in their relationship, there’s also activation of the amygdala, central to processing fear and anxiety. We’re unsettled if we’re not sure who in our social world gets ulcers and who gives them. We seem to need to be clear about social hierarchy for our well-being.
Primate brains, in fact, developed in relation to social activity. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has shown a correlation exists between the average size of the neocortex and the average size of a primate’s social group. In other words, big neocortexes and the ability to keep track of numerous dominance relations evolved hand-in-hand.
So we think a lot about status relations, and bring considerable neural firepower to the task. That’s part of our primate legacy. It’s only natural, then, that we see celebrities in terms of social status, and rank them, given their fame, as high-status individuals, and we their subordinates. On the savanna, the high-ranking baboon draws other baboons’ glances. In the supermarket checkout line, the celebrity grabs our attention.
But fame and high status are not always synonymous. The latter is about the real world, how we interact with people at the water hole or water cooler. In contrast, with rare exceptions, we don’t interact with the famous; instead, they dwell on another planet. That difference goes a long way toward explaining why our brains do all sorts of distortive things with celebrities. Without face-to-face feedback in a community—reality testing—our compass drifts.
In the hunter-gatherer world, which constituted 99 percent of human history, the difference between status and fame was fairly benign. Some guy in the next valley is proto-famous for his hunting skill, and people in your crowd believe he brings down elephants with his teeth, while the reality is that he’s merely awesomely accurate with a spear. But in modern life, the famous are even more detached from our everyday realities. On the most mundane level, they can be more physically distant than the next valley—if you’re the right kind of Guinness Book of World Records fanatic, the guy in India with the 14-foot-long mustache may count as famous.
Modern life also provides more realms of expertise for potential fame. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, somebody might have a good rep for hunting or making obsidian blades, painting on cave walls or leading awesome shamanistic ceremonies. But now people can gain fame by being as rich as The Donald, bending it like Beckham, belting like Adele, or by figuring out something like special relativity, which to most people sounds like something that did come from another planet.
Moreover, you can have fame in our contemporary world (at least for 15 minutes) for bizarre things unrelated to expertise. You can be famous for being famous, like Paris Hilton, for being the Numa Numa guy lip-syncing a song on YouTube, or for having sex with someone famous. (Wait, has history decided if that was indeed sex that Monica had with Bill?) You can attain fame as the incoherent houseguest Kato Kaelin, or by having your penis cut off by a vengeful wife (remember John Wayne Bobbitt?).
What do we get out of our obsessions with the famous? Sometimes it’s inspiration and emulation. There’s a time-honored logic to this. Just as you could have improved your obsidian blade-making technique by watching a master spear maker, one’s contemporary life might be miraculously transformed by picking up fashion tips from Angelina and Brad.
But there are less rational things that drive the obsessiveness, ways in which our hunter-gatherer brains do garbled things with these weird, modern niches of fame, where we invest our real needs in unreal people. A major one is the strange fantasy world that celebrities inhabit in our heads, where we imagine ourselves affiliated with people we will never know, where we feel like they’d cover our backs during a squabble over meat from the antelope hunt. Our personal status is raised by real relationships with high-status individuals, and it can be an intensely pleasurable event. The incandescence of high status is such that our brains have a tough time realizing our relationship with celebrities is only pretend. Evolution hasn’t had time to tell us the high-status individuals who stir our emotions are make-believe.
In the movie Notting Hill, Julia Roberts plays the mega-movie star, Anna Scott, who through the usual implausible turns of fate of the movies, falls for a meek nebbish bookstore owner, played by Hugh Grant. He brings her to a birthday party for his sister, who knows nothing about this unlikely development in his life. The sister arrives and discovers that her brother has brought … ANNA SCOTT! “Oh holy fuck!” the sister exclaims, hyperventilating, “This is one of the key moments in life when it’s possible you can be really genuinely cool, and I’m going to fail just 100 percent. I absolutely, totally, and utterly adore you and I just think you are the most beautiful woman in the world. And more importantly, I genuinely believe, and I’ve believed for some time now, that, that, we could be best friends.”
We literally view those with high status as bigger than life. A 2009 study led by Georgetown psychology professor Abigail A. Marsh shows that people who express dominance are perceived as being taller than they are. And we overgeneralize the expertise of the famous. Actors who play doctors get asked for medical advice. Dennis Rodman discusses Korean geopolitics, Tom Cruise spouts Scientology drivel about the sins of psychiatry, and Jenny McCarthy, whose fame comes more from her Playboy appearances than from her epidemiology training, convinces people to not vaccinate their babies because of pseudoscience about autism. People have probably died because of that.
Arguably the most distortive thing we do with the fame of celebrities is to feel diminished by them. It’s a threat to our social standing, desirability, and self-esteem if the person next door not only looks better than you, but if on top of that, his goat looks better than yours. We know these people are the creations of personal reps, ghostwriters, publicity agents, and the Botox-industrial complex. Yet we look in literal or figurative mirrors and feel less content with who we are.
But we are not without the means to defend ourselves against affronts to our self-worth, and it’s as old as language itself—gossip. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm has studied status relations in traditional societies, demonstrating how members of hunter-gatherer bands are fiercely egalitarian, constantly on the lookout for some miscreant who is being domineering in their opinions or hogging food. Gossip plays a key role. It helps for reality testing (“Is it just me, or was he being a total jerk just now?”), passing news (“Two guesses who just happened to get a foot cramp during the scariest part of the hunt today”), and for building consensus (“Something needs to be done about this guy”). Gossip is the weapon of norm enforcement. It makes us feel better when someone who is powerful and unpalatable gets their comeuppance. Justice briefly reigns and for a moment the grass doesn’t seem greener on the other side. Neuroimaging studies consistently show that reward areas of the brain glow with satisfaction when we feelschadenfreude, when we gloat at the misfortune of someone we envy.
In our innate primate dance with status, gossip momentarily puts us on even footing with the alphas. We may never be as glorious or acclaimed as a celebrity, but at least we know—OMG, look at this picture!—that it won’t be humiliating front page news if we’re ever photographed wearing something that hideous. And even if that sort of pleasure is rare, I personally can take daily comfort and a sense of a life well lived in knowing that, if he were to stop and really think about it, George Clooney would have to admit that he considers me his best friend forever.