Many social critics have bemoaned the current explosion of popular culture as if it reflects some sort of collective character flaw, but, in fact it is nothing more than the inevitable outcome of the collision between 21st-century media and stone-age minds. When you cut away its many layers, our interest in popular culture is nothing more than an intense interest in the doings of other people, and our preoccupation with the lives of others is a by-product of the psychology that evolved in prehistoric times to make our ancestors socially successful.
Fascination Equals Success
As far as we can tell, our prehistoric ancestors lived their entire lives in relatively small groups where you, or at least your relatives, knew everyone else in a face-to-face, long-term kind of way. Strangers were probably an infrequent and temporary phenomenon, although these small cooperative groups were in competition with other relatively small groups. To make matters more complicated, it was not only necessary for our ancestors to cooperate with 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 exchange partner 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, and an irresistible interest in the private dealings of other people would have been very handy indeed, even being strongly favored by natural selection.
In short, people who were fascinated with the lives of others were simply more successful than those who were not, and it is the genes of those individuals that have come down to us through the ages. Like it or not, our inability to resist gossip and information about other individuals is as much a part of who we are as is our inability to resist doughnuts or sex, and for the very same reasons.
Power of the Particular
A social skill that would have had a big payoff is the ability to remember details about the temperament, predictability, and past behavior of individuals who were personally known to you; there would have been very little use for a mind that was designed to engage in abstract statistical thinking about large numbers of unknown others. Thus, natural selection shaped a thirst for, and a memory designed to store information about, specific people -- we even have a brain area specifically dedicated to the identification of human faces!
For better or worse, this is the mental equipment that we must rely on to navigate our way through a modern world filled with technology and strangers. Given all of this, I suppose I should not be surprised when the very same psychology students who get glassy-eyed at any mention of statistical data about human beings in general become riveted by case studies of individual people experiencing psychological problems.
Successful politicians take advantage of this pervasive "power of the particular" when they use anecdotes and personal narratives to make political points. Even the dictator Josef Stalin noted that "one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." The prevalence of reality TV shows and nightly news programs focusing on stories about a missing child or the personal gaffes of politicians are beasts of our own creation.
Famous Becomes Familiar
Even if we can explain the intense interest that we have in other people who are socially important to us, how can we possibly explain the seemingly useless interest that we have in the lives of reality show contestants, movie stars, and celebrities of all kinds?
One possible explanation may be found in the fact that celebrities are a recent occurrence, evolutionarily speaking. In our ancestral environment, any person about whom we knew intimate details of his or her private life was, by definition, a socially important member of the in-group. Jerry Barkow is a Canadian anthropologist and a friend of mine who has studied gossip in its cultural context. He points out that evolution did not prepare us to distinguish between members of our community who have genuine effects on our lives and the images and voices that we are bombarded with by the entertainment industry. 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. This will be especially true for television actors in soap operas or news anchors that are seen on a daily basis; these famous people become familiar friends.
In our modern world, celebrities may also serve another important social function. In a highly mobile, industrialized society, celebrities may be the only "friends" we have in common with our new neighbors and coworkers. They provide a common interest and topic of conversation between people who otherwise might not have much to say to each other, and they facilitate the types of informal interaction that help people become comfortable in new surroundings. Hence, keeping up on the lives of actors, politicians, and athletes can make one more socially adept during interactions with strangers and even provide segues into social relationships with new friends in the virtual world of the internet.
Research by a Belgian colleague of mine, Charlotte DeBacker, indicates 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 in the old days. 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.
It Is Only Human Nature
The gossip studies that my students and I have worked on over the past decade -- Megan Milenkovic '97, Maria Garcia '02, and Emily Bell '04, to name a few -- have focused on uncovering what we are most interested in finding out about other people and what we are most likely to spread around. We have had people of all ages rank their interest in tabloid stories about celebrities and we have asked college students to read gossip scenarios about unidentified individuals and tell us which types of people they would most like to hear such information about and whom they would gossip about.
We have consistently found that we are most interested in gossip about people of the same sex as ourselves who also happen to be around our own age. We have also found that information that is socially useful is always of greatest interest to us, so we like to know about the scandals and misfortunes of our rivals and high status people, since this is something that might be exploited in social competition. Positive information about such people tends to be uninteresting to us. Conversely, positive information (good fortune, sudden elevation of status) about our friends and relatives is very interesting and likely to be used to our advantage whenever possible.
I believe that we will continue to shake our heads at what we are constantly being subjected to by the mass media and rationally dismiss it as irrelevant to anything that matters in our own lives. But in case you find yourself becoming just a tiny bit intrigued by some inane story about a celebrity, let yourself off the hook and enjoy the guilty pleasure. After all, it is only human nature.