The Real Reason People Care About Celebrity Breakups
08.16.17

I was watching Game of Thrones when a wail of agony that most definitely wasn’t coming from the television startled me out of my HBO stupor.

“NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” My friend shouted.

“What?!” I said, leaping off the sofa as my mind raced through every potential calamity that could have possibly befallen her in the last five seconds. “Just look,” she said, shoving her phone at me. I looked. The following Instagram post was open on her screen:

“I’m shocked,” she said. “They were my favorite couple.”

Believe it or not, my friend’s reaction to Anna Faris and Chris Pratt’s separation after eight years as bonafide mascots for #relationshipgoals was temperate compared to the rest of the internet’s. By the time I woke up the next morning, all of social media was in mourning.

Anna Faris and Chris Pratt’s separation certainly wasn’t the first celebrity breakup to garner this kind of meltdown. Remember Amy Poehler and Will Arnett? Seal and Heidi Klum? Or Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams? The fact that people can and do get so worked up over the relationships of perfect strangers is pretty weird, but also fascinating. It almost seems to feed off of itself, ricocheting around in an echo chamber of memes and retweets and Facebook statuses.

I reached out to psychologist Arianna Brandolini d’Adda to pick her brain about why it is that we care so much about the lives of celebrities we don’t know and will likely never meet. She explained that, actually, it’s evolutionarily advantageous for us to pay attention to the dominant individuals in our group, a.k.a. celebrities: “Just by observing and learning what high-status individuals do, it is more likely that you’ll become one. Paying attention to what those at the top are doing serves a political purpose, because it will make you better equipped to work the social scene. Celebrities often represent a fantasy of what we would like to have, so it’s quite natural to get wrapped up in their lives and relationships.”

She cited white wedding dresses as an example of how high-profile individuals can have a massive trickle-down impact on society; though omnipresent now, they only became popular in the 1840s after Queen Victoria wore one. She also acknowledged that celebrity fascination is more intense than ever thanks to the proliferation of the internet and social media:

This generation has a limitless capacity to gather detailed information about celebrities we admire. We can essentially spend as many hours a day with them as we choose. Celebrities facilitate this unprecedented access by interacting with their fans through social media. Often we develop what social psychologists call a ‘parasocial relationship,’ which is basically a one-sided relationship where one person (in this case, the fan) will invest energy, time and interest, while the other party (in this case, the celebrity) is unaware of the other’s existence. So, when something negative happens to these individuals we love and admire, whom we’re emotionally invested in, and whom we place on a pedestal of perceived and maybe-one-day-I-can-attain-it-too perfection, we can feel intense sadness and personal loss.

The psychology behind putting celebrities on a pedestal (and reacting poorly when they inevitably fall from it) rings especially true in the context of a question heard ’round the internet in the wake of Faris and Pratt’s split: If even these two perfect human specimens can’t make it work, how the heck can the rest of us mere mortals hope to find love?

The thing is, celebrities are mere mortals too, no matter how far away their stratosphere seems from ours, and it bears reminding that Anna Faris and Chris Pratt and Angelina Jolie and Idris Elba and Priyanka Chopra and Melissa McCarthy and Mahershala Ali and all the other beautiful famous people out there have all had spinach stuck in their teeth at one point or another. Just like you and me.

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Disney.

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