Status-Conscious Monkeys Shed Light on Celeb Obsession


WASHINGTON, March 30, 2005 — -- Judging by the explosion of celebrity-driven media, America's obsession with the J.Los and Bens, Brads, Jennifers, Marthas and Donalds seems to have never been greater.

Actress Angelina Jolie criticized the public's fascination with the famous and influential on ABC News' "Nightline" earlier this month. "Why is anybody giving any attention?" she said. "Because I made a film? Because I wore a dress to something? It's silly, and it feels very shallow."

But what if our celebrity obsession is more primal than that? Scientists at Duke University say it just might be.

Dr. Michael Platt, a neurobiologist at Duke University Medical Center, led an experiment with 12 adult male rhesus macaque monkeys that he says may help explain the fascination with celebrities like socialite Paris Hilton.

Platt conducted the experiment by offering thirsty monkeys a choice: their favorite drink, in this case Juicy Juice cherry juice, or the opportunity to look at computer images of the dominant, "celebrity" monkey of their pack.

Despite their thirst, they chose to look at the pictures.

"What is celebrity for a monkey but their status?" said Platt.

Monkeys with status have food, power and sexual magnetism -- everything the others crave. The impulse to look at these "celebrity" monkeys was so strong, it superceded thirst.

But they were not willing to give up the juice to look at pictures of subordinate monkeys, Platt found. In fact, they had to be bribed with extra juice to watch the rhesus riffraff.

Interestingly, the "celebrity" monkeys, says Platt, were just as interested in their fellow celebrities.

"A male can be at the top of his game and suddenly plummet," he said, sounding like he were describing any workplace situation. "Either if there's a new guy in town who enters the group who's high-ranking, or if his alliances fall apart, right?"

The male monkeys were also willing to pay (with more juice) to see female monkeys' hind quarters. Monkey porn? The study, after all, is called "Monkey Pay-Per-View."

Platt jokes it may be less a simian similarity with adult entertainment and more akin to "when you're walking down the street with your wife or your girlfriend and an attractive woman walks by. You can't help but look over there and then, y'know, your wife hits you with her purse."

The study had a serious medical goal: trying to figure out how the brain acquires and processes visual information about social status.

"We know that's disrupted in autism and a number of other disorders like anxiety disorders and things like that," said Platt.

The primate world, in general, may be hard-wired to look at pictures of the powerful and the sexy -- whether we pay for it with cash or cherry juice.

Mary-Claude Foster, Avery Miller, Max Culhane and Hillary Profita contributed to this report.

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