Did you stop to watch, even briefly, the Kardashian circus when it was in town? Or pick up on the tweets from Warnie about where he was taking Liz for breakfast? Such celebrity gossip is much more than a fascination with the rich and famous. It is an in-demand social skill that picks up on our intense curiosity about the lives of others, a trait evolutionary psychologists say is deeply encoded in our DNA.
The rise of social media taps in to our innate nosiness and creates an ersatz intimacy with people who are, in reality, strangers.
An American professor of evolutionary psychology, Frank McAndrew, says celebrity gossip is ''nothing more than the inevitable outcome of the collision between 21st-century media and Stone Age minds''. In his 2008 paper, The Science of Gossip, he writes: ''This preoccupation with the lives of others is a byproduct of the psychology that evolved in prehistoric times to make our ancestors socially successful. It appears that we are hardwired to be fascinated by gossip.''
The theory goes like this. When everyone lived in small groups and knew all the other members of the tribe, they were competing for limited resources, so it was important to know who was reliable, who cheated, who had a desirable daughter and who had madness in the family. McAndrew argues that natural selection would have strongly favoured an interest in the private dealings of others.
A Gold Coast clinical psychologist, Bob Montgomery, says: ''Humans have been gossiping ever since they've opened their mouths; we're interested in each other. It's the keyhole effect: we like to peek through the keyhole and see what other people are doing.''
Montgomery says celebrities are the natural subject of attention in today's all-pervasive media. Our senses are bombarded with faces, bodies and personal histories in movies, radio, TV and the internet, and it seems our brains cannot distinguish between celebrities and members of our real community.
McAndrew writes: ''The intense familiarity with celebrities provided by the modern media trips the same gossip mechanisms that have evolved to keep up with the affairs of in-group members.'' Anyone we know that much about must be socially important, right?
Kim Kardashian's wedding coverage gave Who magazine its biggest-selling edition in 10 years, editor Nicky Briger says. ''They were letting out lots of information about the wedding; it was all over Twitter,'' she says. ''There was so much social media, even online started putting up grabs of the wedding before we came out - and at first we thought it would spoil our exclusive but I think all it did was fuel the interest … people just wanted more.''
This insatiable interest in the minutiae of people's lives helps explain the craze for reality TV shows. Briger says the stars know how to work the system. ''They do make themselves available,'' she says. ''They seek out publicity; they understand it, as they know it's pretty much all they've got.''
The dark side to this thirst for private details has made news in the British phone-hacking scandal, with public figures including J.K. Rowling, Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller giving evidence on the invasion of the media in their lives. Rowling said she felt ''under siege'', with the most outrageous moment involving a journalist gaining access to her five-year-old daughter's schoolbag while at school.
However, being up on the latest in the lives of actors, politicians or sporting stars does provide a handy conversation-starter and can make the bearer of celebrity gossip appear more interesting. The famous become like friends shared with workmates, neighbours or that interesting stranger at a party.
Most gossip is non-malicious and is usually about colleagues and friends, not celebrities. Montgomery says: ''You're learning the social mores and expectations of the group you belong to and that's quite a valuable function.''
So talking over morning coffee about a singer's tragic hipster outfit is not just idle chit-chat. It is bonding with peers, forming alliances, airing social values and doing what comes naturally.
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