Evolution hasnt 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! The sister exclaims, hyperventilating, This is one of the key moments in life when its possible you can be really genuinely cool, and Im 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 ive believed for some time now, that, that, we could be best friends.
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You can be famous for being famous, like paris Hilton, for being the numa numa guy lip-syncing a song on, 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 its inspiration and emulation. Theres a time-honored logic to this. Just as you could have improved your obsidian blade-making technique by watching a master spear maker, ones 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 wallpaper 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 theyd 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.
On the most mundane level, they can be more physically distant than the next valley—if youre the right kind. 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 father's 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. 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. Moreover, you can have fame in our contemporary world (at least for 15 minutes) for bizarre things unrelated to expertise.
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 dont 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 biography 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 hes merely awesomely accurate with a spear. But in modern life, the famous are even more detached from our everyday realities.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has shown a correlation exists between the average size of the neocortex and the average size of a primates 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. Thats part of our primate legacy. Its 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.
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At some point, they come from opposite sides and head straight toward each other—theyre going to bump! Will one of them give way? Infants look more intently at this scenario than when the squares dont get in each others 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 file the time the big one would give way. When its the big square groveling in the dirt submissively, infants look far longer—hey, that guys supposed to win the interaction, hes 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. As shown by caroline zink of the lieber Institute for Brain development, if a and b keep flip-flopping in their relationship, theres also activation of the amygdala, central to processing fear and anxiety. Were unsettled if were 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.
After all, whod you want to have your back in a fight—the schlub of a low-ranking baboon snoozing by the bushes, or the alpha male whos been on the cover. Humans dont 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; its 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. Thats 40-thousandths of a second. Whod you want to have your back in a fight—the schlub of a low-ranking baboon snoozing by the bushes, or the alpha male whos been on the cover of Baboon magazine? 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 infants social brain, the squares have eyes and a mouth—theyre personified, they want to get to the other side.
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Social status is always on a summary baboons 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 paper is a huge social convenience—it insures bloody teeth and claws dont 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.
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 arent real. Also in Animals, i am Not a monster, by regan Penaluna. Cephalopods loom large in our cultural mythos. Their long, sucking arms, large, unblinking eyes, and the sheer size of species like the giant squid have creeped us out since at least the middle Ages, when tales warned merchants of the. Read more, 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 resignation is his or her rank in a sex-specific dominance hierarchy.
an evening like that? 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. Because were 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).
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