Before there was a Bey Hive or Bieber Fever, there was “Lisztomania” — the intense fandom directed toward mid-1800s Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, who was both dashing and a talented musician. People were fascinated with everything Liszt did, from where he went to who he was spending his time with. In many ways, the desire to know these things has not gone away. Our appetite for celebrity gossip is still insatiable, which isn’t surprising, considering it’s a combination of our two favorite things: fame and bad news.

The human brain is hardwired to tune into gossip, but there’s something different about celebrity gossip that sets it apart from everyday office chatter. Our interest in celebrity gossip has in fact persisted throughout history. In the book, FAME: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity, author Tom Payne traces this fascination back to early human civilizations and our ancestors’ love for martyrs and saints, The Atlantic reported.

Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan, says our desire to know about the activities of high-status individuals is a trait we share with other primates, and that it’s due to an evolutionary tactic that may have helped us live through the years. Speaking to LiveScience, he said there are two evolutionary benefits to celebrity gossip: The first is for our own personal benefit; “learning what high-status individuals do, so you might more effectively become one,” Kruger explained. The second reason is more political, and relates to how we have complex social circles. “Knowing what is going on with high-status individuals, you'd be better able to navigate the social scene.” 

But let’s not kid ourselves. Not all celebrity news is equally popular, and nothing sells a paper more than a good ole’ scandal.

How Gossip Affects The Brain

Just this year, Chinese researchers observed the physical effects of celebrity scandal on our brains. In a study published in the journal Social Neuroscience, researchers had 17 student volunteers hear bits of gossip about themselves, their friends, and a famous celebrity who they had known of but not previously expressed any special interest in. The subjects of gossip ranged from positive, like a collaborative search for missing children, to negative, like someone who got caught driving under the influence, Wired reported. All of this was done while the volunteers underwent brain scans.

The students were asked how each bit of gossip made them feel once they were done. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the students admitted they preferred to hear positive gossip about themselves and negative gossip about their friends and celebrities. However, while they claimed they had no preference over who they heard negative gossip about, their brain activity showed otherwise.

Among these participants, the caudate nucleus — a brain region associated with pleasure and reward — showed “moderately strong” activity when the students were told negative celebrity gossip, an increase in activity when compared to hearing negative peer gossip. What’s more, brain scans also showed activity in regions associated with self-control when the participants heard celebrity gossip. This suggested the students were trying to hide just how much they enjoyed hearing about a star’s public downfall.

There's no news like bad news. Bev Sykes CC BY 2.0

More Bad News Please?

While celebrity bad news may be our favorite, humans are actually quite eager to read about any type of misfortune. A 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for People found American news preferences have remained “surprisingly static” over the last 20 years, with war and terrorism being the subjects of the most popular headlines since the study began in 1986. News on bad weather and crime were also notably popular throughout the decades.

This propensity for bad news spans the global population. A 2003 study on word association showed that people respond quicker to negative words, such as “cancer,” “bomb,” and “war,” than they would more positive words, such as “smile” and “fun.” This suggests a natural inclination toward the macabre, and news outlets know it — hence the popular journalism phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Our inclination toward bad news is also sometimes termed “negative bias.” We all possess it to some degree, and it’s actually helpful, as it’s a possible side effect of the fight-or-flight response. According to The BBC, bad news acts as a threat, signaling that we need to change our behavior in order to avoid danger. In other words, we love to see what mistakes celebrities are making in their personal lives, so we can then avoid making those same mistakes in our own lives.

It's An Escape, Too

Celebrity gossip does more than satisfy an innate human instinct, however — it actually brings us true enjoyment. For some people, learning about the secret lives of celebrities, what happens behind the scenes, is a way to escape from their daily routine.The juicier the news, the better.

Stuart Fischer, an emeritus professor of media psychology at the University of UCLA, says preoccupation with the lives of celebrities isn’t exactly unhealthy. In some cases, he says, it can actually be beneficial to our psychology. People who lack social skills, for example, can use celebrity gossip and fandom as a base to bond with others with the same interests.

"If they weren't going to be interacting with people otherwise, this makes them at least have a social relationship they didn't have before," Fischoff told LiveScience. "So it's making the best out of a bad deal, psychologically."

In addition to promoting psychological health, a 2010 paper written by researchers Amanda Hinnant and Elizabeth Hendrickson, who were working at the University of Missouri at the time, found reading celebrity gossip could help to draw public attention to serious medical issues. The researchers observed readers were more deeply affected by health issues when a celebrity was involved than when they read about the conditions via public service announcements, The Telegraph reported. In fact, according to The Los Angeles Times, Charlie Sheen may have unintentionally become the face of HIV awareness efforts following his HIV-positive announcement on the Today show last week.

Ultimately, it seems that despite the negative attitudes toward it, our obsession with celebrity gossip is not only innate but actually healthy for us. So next time you're browsing the closest magazine stand, remember you’re no less of a person for reaching for a tabloid. In fact, it’s only natural that you do.