The secret psychological pull of celebrity gossip

weinstein cartoon 2Understanding why we love celebrity gossip is the first step to finding a healthy maintenance dose. The Weinstein sexual assault scandal – let’s hope it’s a tipping point! – exposes one of the underlying, yet rarely discussed, reasons why celebrity gossip is so delightfully addictive.

But first, let’s skim the research. Dr. Robin Dunbar writes about gossip as a form of social grooming, crucial for both bonding and maintaining large social groups. He even posits that gossip is a key reason why language evolved in the first place – which I can clearly see evidenced by the infamous cash me outside girl. In his book, FAME: What the Classics Tell Us About our Cult of Celebrity, Tom Payne tracks our obsession throughout history, noting our ancestors’ love of martyrs and saints. We still can’t get enough of Henry VIII! Evolutionary biologists have found that other primates share our curiosity for high status individuals, enabling them to emulate the leaders and/or better navigate within the overall group. One experiment showed that male macaque monkeys were willing to sacrifice food treats to look at pics of high status males… and female bottoms (no surprise there). Our caudate nucleus, a brain region associated with pleasure and reward, shows stronger activity when stimulated with negative celebrity gossip vs similar peer information. The latter study also highlights our long proven “negativity bias.” As a final note of interest, Dr. Margaret Paul roots our compulsion in a “wounded self” – but let’s just not even go there.

So how do Weinstein and the expanding celebrity sexual harassment scandal add to our understanding? What’s the secret allure? Quite simply, celebrities are an exaggeration of our humanity: larger than life, more charismatic, more talented (and/or driven), more beautiful (cough cough photoshop), more powerful (at least on the left). Why? Because their brains allow them broader personal permissions to reinforce and sell these identity concepts, whether solid or fragile and insecure. They get to where they are by chasing their passions and often strategically ignoring many of the social/societal rules that have helped our species survive as a functional whole. Just look at Donald Trump! I’m generalizing here, but the pattern keeps repeating; celebrities work to amplify their exaggerations and follow their personal “what ifs,” all the way to their flaming or glorious ends.

We love to watch from the emotional safety of our separateness, testing our own choices and identities against the far end of the curve. Even the way many celebrities dress is an exaggeration, of fashion, perfection, individuality, or even just raw sexual exposure. Aesthetically, it’s irresistible. So how do we find a balance when the tabloid brain/eye candy is so delicious? I went celeb gossip free January 2017 because it was killing too much time, then I relapsed, then went cold turkey…then… But now I comfortably get my daily fix and move on. Knowing why my brain thrills to the Kardashian pregnancy trifecta (my caudate is still drooling over here) keeps me in control. And here’s another trick…

When you open your own permissions to their most livable extremes, the pull to live vicariously through celebrity gossip begins to fade away. Don’t be afraid to test the rules, to push boundaries. Keep your bearings by checking that both your short and long game choices are still grounded in compassion and respect. Dare to follow (and dress for) the passions that celebrate your own intrinsic, and beautifully unique, exaggerations. But a warning… keep your hands to yourself!

5 thoughts on “The secret psychological pull of celebrity gossip

  1. I must look out for Dunbar’s book. Celebrity gossip does seem fairly fundamental as a social phenomenon – as you say, fascination with status and the ideation of celebrities as perfect humans seems to be part of the mix. It’s the hook behind ‘click bait’ more often than not. What intrigues me is that the presentation of (say) movie stars as lurching from personal crisis to personal crisis, all on a weekly cycle (funnily enough), and all the while displaying the apparent emotional maturity of eight-year olds (‘I’m not your friend any more. Oh yes I am. Oh no I’m not…’) seems to speak more of how certain magazines are consciously pitched and marketed to society as a whole than it does of the ‘stars’ involved.

    • Fantastic comment Matthew! I totally agree that tabloids hype up these dramas and all too often create entirely false scenarios to sell more mags and/or get more clicks. This point is so important to remember! From one writer to another, that would be a weird job wouldn’t it? I think it’s also interesting to note that any group will present as extreme when only one aspect is the focus. For example, in a congregation, a prayer meeting will give the impression that an overwhelming majority are suffering or know someone who’s just kicked the preverbal bucket. Whereas, interpersonal dramas are the bread and butter of entertainment tabloids and so focus almost entirely on these life events.

      While writing this post, I tried to keep in mind all forms of celebrity, including political and sports (gooooo Team Canada! …and of course New Zealand 😉 ). I believe it’s so important to highlight the initial organic exaggerations that brought recognition (talent, bone structure, compassionate drive) rather than the questionable behaviours (real or fabricated) that keep so many celebrities in the public eye. I’m shocked that children are now growing up with fame as the raw goal! So dangerous because our brains, like water, tend to follow the path of least resistance, hence all the sexualized selfies – and don’t even get me started on the Tide Pod challenge!!

    • Lol I for one believe a well designed shoe can be an act of public service 😉 Provided, of course, one doesn’t use it to walk all over someone while trying to get on PageSix!

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