If you could wave a magic wand and make yourself smarter, stronger, more beautiful, or famous, which would you pick? I was surprised by how many people pick fame over everything else.
On a cold December morning in Times Square this winter, dozens of people volunteered to strip down to bathing suits and get spray-painted blue, red, green and yellow, to try to look like M&M's. It was a promotion for the candy company. When I asked these people why they'd take part in such a stunt -- especially when they were not being paid -- most told me it was because they love attention.
"Everybody wants to show who they are," said one man painted head-to-toe in yellow. "Me, I just wanna be me."
I said, "You're not you, you're an M&M!"
That's when a woman (she was green) interjected, "You're here to cover us though, so obviously we're important. It's better than going to a shrink."
Maybe these M&M's should go to a shrink. That people would get painted and run around in the cold doesn't surprise Leigh Hallisey, who teaches a course on TV and Popular Culture at Boston University's College of Communication.
"It used to be enough that you got attention from your parents. You got attention from your teachers, your peers and that sort of thing, but that is no longer enough," said Hallisey. "We want attention from the worldwide media."
And the worldwide media is happy to supply it. Magazines like "Us Weekly" celebrate fame. Editor-in-chief Janice Min told ABC, "You don't even have to be so talented to be famous. You just have to be outrageous, well dressed, gorgeous, date the right person."
And why do people want to read about that?
Jake Halpern, author of the new book "Fame Junkies," theorizes that celebrity magazines like "Us Weekly," "People" and "In Touch" are so popular because people are lonely. Halpern points out that today more young people tend to marry later in life and more can afford their own living spaces, so they spend more time alone.
"So we got all of these young people that are living alone, often working alone in their cubicle and their Internet, and there's all of these imaginary friends floating out there, Brad and Jen, Angelina and Tom and Katie and Paris, and we feel as if we know them," Halpern says. "They somehow make us feel comforted, less lonely."
Scientists see something similar in rhesus monkeys. At Duke University, researchers offered the primates a choice between their favorite, cherry juice, and just looking at pictures of what you might call a "celebrity monkey," the leader of the pack.
Halpern explains, "The smaller, weaker, subordinate monkeys actually gave up food to look at pictures of the big, dominant, celebrity-like monkeys."
Anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University explains that our distant ancestors had their own form of primitive celebrity worship.
"In hunting and gathering societies they always have something called the 'big men.' And 'big men' are ones who are more charismatic. They're better hunters. They've got more power," Fisher told me. "The people around them want to be near them because they figure they will get some of that power too."
But why would people want to look at celebrities? Fisher thinks she has the answer.