Understanding 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!