Found yourself obsessing over a baby you have no connection to? You’re not the only one…
“My name is Kayleigh Dray, and I am obsessed with celebrity babies.”
Before you judge me too harshly, I want to make it very clear that I am, for the most part, a serious-minded individual. Yes, I specialise in commenting on pop culture here at stylist.co.uk, but I always do so through a feminist lens (see my plethora of essays on Friends, The Handmaid’s Tale, Doctor Who, Call The Midwife, Black Mirror and Game of Thrones as a case in point). I fill the rest of my working day with all the usual administrative and HR-flavoured fun that comes with middle management.
Away from the office, I pass my time filling in crosswords, reading hardback (and hard-going) books and visiting my local independent cinema. I (attempt to) sound knowledgeable about wine. I play table-top games with bulky rule-books. I concoct veggie-filled recipes in a bid to get my NHS-prescribed five-a-day. I watch documentaries about cults and communes. I bend to the every whim of my FitBit, heading off on long, ponderous constitutionals around the city parks whenever it so much as hints that I won’t reach my step target for the day. I pretend that I only watch the likes of Bake Off and First Dates in a self-aware, ironic fashion.
And yet, when it comes to the babies of famous individuals, I – somewhat embarrassingly – lose all grip on reality. Particularly when these aforementioned famous individuals have blue blood coursing through their veins.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” I whisper to myself as I scrawl the internet for information, feverish with excitement. “What delightfully traditional name will Kate and Will plump for this time – and what does it mean? WHEN WILL THE FIRST PHOTO OF THE BABY BE OUT?!”
Yes, I really do care about that first photo of the royal baby – and that’s in spite of the fact that a) it will be so bundled up in blankets the only visible part will be its nose, and b) all babies kind of look the same at that age (don’t attempt to argue the point – we all know it to be true).
However, while I – and many others – might be tempted to dismiss this royal baby obsession as an inexplicable (and embarrassing) sickness, psychologists say that such interest isn’t just understandable: it’s natural, too.
Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist and research professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, recently explained to CBC that high-profile births have become such a media phenomenon because they combine two fascinations humans have as part of our evolved heritage: an interest in infants and children, and an interest in high-status individuals.
That interest in small children is very much a characteristic of our species and any other species where an adult other than a mother may provide parental care to newborns or younger offspring, says Kruger.
“You see this happening in other primates,” he adds, noting that documentaries have been produced focusing on chimpanzees giving birth at zoos, and the offspring being introduced to other chimps.
“You just see the fascination in their faces with the new infant.”
That other human fascination, with high-status individuals, might even have a practical payoff for those of a lower social position.
“It provides benefits for others because they’re better able to create alliances and advance their own social position by knowing what’s going on at the top,” Kruger suggests.
“So you combine these two things and when you have high-status individuals having babies, that’s going to draw a particular amount of attention.”
Kruger is not the only expert to suggest that this preoccupation with the lives of others is a by-product of the psychology that evolved in prehistoric times. Professor Frank T. McAndrew, in a piece for Psychology Today, points out that our ancestors had to cooperate with one another in order to survive, but that they also had to recognise the fact that they were one another’s main competitors when it came to dividing limited resources.
As such, they had to exercise and develop their social intelligence in order to survive, using it to manage friendships, alliances and family relationships, as well as predict and influence the dealings of others.
“Evolution did not prepare us to distinguish among members of our community who have genuine effects on our life and the images and voices we are bombarded with by the entertainment industry,” says McAndrew, highlighting the fact that our intense familiarity with celebrities and the royals can leave us feeling – on a subconscious layer – that they are socially important to us.
“They provide a common interest and topic of conversation between people who otherwise might not have much to say to one another, and they facilitate the types of informal interactions that help people become comfortable in new surroundings,” he adds.
“Hence, keeping up with the lives of actors, politicians, and athletes can make a person more socially adept during interactions with strangers.”
Of course, it’s not just celebrity offspring that we’re hard-wired to care about (as anyone who’s ever cooed over a stranger’s baby on a packed tube will attest to). In fact, the ‘Kinderschema’ – which was discovered and outlined by the controversial Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz in 1943 (when he wasn’t working as a Nazi psychologist at German concentration camps in WWII) – are a set of characteristics in human children (and other baby animals) which prompt an “awwww” response in adults.
These special characteristics include “(a) large head relative to body size, rounded head; (b) large, protruding forehead; (c) large eyes relative to face, eyes below midline of head; (d) rounded, protruding cheeks; (e) rounded body shape; and (f) soft, elastic body surfaces.” Lorenz, unfortunately, isn’t an uncomplicated figure.
Again, it’s worth noting that the Kinderschema is – theoretically, at least – an evolutionary tool. Unlike the very young offspring of some other species, which can care for themselves shortly or immediately after birth, human babies need attention in order to survive and thrive: they must be fed, physically protected and held, among other things that parents do for their children.
However, parents are not the only ones who can care for babies – any human can do it. As a result, we are all hardwired with that “caretaker” instinct, just in case one of the voluntarily child-free among us is unexpectedly asked to raise a distant relative’s baby, stumble across one in the woods or, y’know, find ourselves trapped in some similarly outlandish sitcom scenario.
If blaming evolution for our obsession with royal babies seems too easy, though, Jim Houran, a New York-based psychologist and expert in celebrity culture, has another theory.
And it revolves around humanity’s very basic need to find some shred of happiness in amongst all the anxiety-churning headlines we’re confronted with on a day-to-day basis.
“I think that this is actually a particularly well-timed birth amidst a lot of turmoil in the world, so it gives people something positive and happy to think about and to pay attention to above and beyond the normal turmoils we tend to see on the TV,” he says.
Hmm. While that certainly rings true (Trump! Brexit! War! General misery and despair!), I far prefer to view my fascination with Kate and Will’s latest sprog as a symptom of my superior social intelligence. How about you?