Last night, Kim Kardashian West attempted to break the Internet once again. And while the Internet appears to still be functioning, the reality superstar did do a pretty good job of sending hundreds of thousands of social media users into a guilty-pleasure gossip frenzy.
Here's the gist: A while ago, Kardashian West's husband, musician Kanye West, released a song called "Famous" featuring negative lyrics about Taylor Swift, which shook Hollywood — particularly Swift — when it came out.
Last night, Kardashian West posted a series of Snapchat videos from before "Famous" was released that show West on the phone with Swift asking if he could use a lyric about her in the song. She seemed to at least agree with part of it, leading to a whole lot of dropped jaws considering she had previously denied knowing anything about the lyrics at all.
The real-time feud on social media between the two ladies left fans grabbing for popcorn and settling in to watch the bad blood hit the fan. But Kardashian West and Swift aren't close friends with those fans — or any of us — so why do we care? Why do we care about any celebrity gossip? And what effect, if any, does following and spreading this kind of negative drama have on us?
'Knowing' People We Don't Know
First, the obvious: Celebs are public figures and sometimes we can't help but feel like we know them personally. Honestly, we might even know more trivial details about them than our own best friends thanks to the bottomless pit of profiles written about them and the oodles of personal information many of them share on social media. There's actually a psychological term for this phenomenon: parasocial relationships, which are the one-sided relationships that can develop when fans feel closely connected to a celebrity. Feeling like you know a famous person can leave you with a vested interest in their day-to-day, which can also benefit the celeb when it comes to marketing themselves or their projects.
Fascination with celebrities isn't anything new, of course. While there weren't always supermarket tabloids and TMZ, there have always been dominant figures in society that people look to for inspiration and social cues. And it goes back further than you'd think: Even hunter-gatherer societies had their own version of celebrities, as Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, explained to LiveScience.
Humans and even other primates have long looked to "high-status individuals," Kruger said, in order to 1) try to become high-status individuals themselves, and 2) to know what's going on in the social environment. Nobody wants to be the out-of-the-loop guy standing awkwardly at the water cooler, so to speak. We're looking for inspiration and information, and these successful people seem to have it. They have (or appear to have) overcome difficult obstacles and become someone worth emulating — or at least someone worth knowing and talking about.
This Is Your Brain on Gossip
Just as we sit down to watch the latest drama on Netflix, celebrity gossip is a nice distraction from our own lives and can help us bond with others. But there may be some less obvious psychological benefits behind it, too.
In a small 2015 study, researchers scanned the brains of 17 college students as they listened to gossip about themselves, their friends, and celebrities. Obviously hearing positive gossip about yourself is going to be preferred, but it turns out that hearing negative gossip about celebrities stimulated the pleasure part of the brain, too. Even more interesting, other parts of the brain that dealt with self-control lit up, as if to suggest the participants were trying to conceal or control their enjoyment from this gossip.
So, if we secretly like hearing gossip but don't really want to own up to it, why do we spread it in the first place?
Another small 2012 study from the University of California, Berkeley, might have a possible answer: Researchers found there's actually a benefit to spreading gossip. If someone is behaving in an immoral way — think lying and cheating — we tend to feel frustrated with their behavior. But talking about it with others can help ease that feeling, especially when we're spreading the story as a way to alert others so they won't get taken advantage of, too.
Sharing gossip even affected the participants' heart rates. After they witnessed someone behaving badly, their heart rates increased, but after they told someone about it, the increase was tempered.
It seems like no matter how much we say we hate celebrity gossip and try to avoid it, we can't help but perk our heads up when a celeb scandal or feud arises. But if we can at least learn a lesson for our own lives from the buzz, then maybe it's not all in vain.