Mankind has accomplished great things. In the last century alone, we have progressed from communicating by mail, to the telephone, to the cell phone, to email, to texting. We have built cars to take us to work and planes to take us to foreign places we’ve already explored online. We are connected 24-hours a day to a tool that instantly gives us access to the latest updates on global politics, scientific discoveries, and archeological finds, tailored to our particular interests and level of understanding. Yet, when I log on to check my email or flip on the television, the first headline that hits me usually reads, “Young female singer/actor/reality star caught behaving inappropriately at club/on set/in court.”
Gossip is idle talk, slander, and exaggeration. It’s also a pastime, a bond, and a way to gather important information. Long before it was used to laugh at celebrity faux pas, it may have evolved as a way to strengthen the social bonds between members of a group. Our ancestors may have been huddling by the fire, sharing who was hurt during the latest mastodon hunt, who had found their newest mate, and who had fathered offspring with the woman two caves over. Exchanging information is vital in forming alliances among peers—an advantage in a world where the group with the most members survived.
65% of conversation is devoted to gossip, regardless of gender. Our instinct to gossip about celebrities is the same as when society was just forming. Engaging someone about topics that interest them helps to promote friendship; juicy tidbits about shared acquaintances imply trust and intimacy. Anecdotes about the celebrities neither of you will ever meet still comes from the instinct to trade information about members of the group. After seeing these people on our televisions and laptop screens every day, our minds are convinced that their actions are relevant to our social lives.
Parasocial interaction describes a one-sided relationship that forms when one person knows a lot of information about someone who knows little, or nothing, about them. These types of relationships often form with celebrities, whose intimate moments and life stories are posted online for anyone to learn. After a few months of listening to interviews, reading their Twitter feeds, and visiting their websites, our favorite celebrities start to seem less like strangers we admire, and more like our neighbors from down the street.
Gossip, whether about our friends, coworkers, or relative strangers, has a benefit in addition to social bonding. It also serves up models with whom we can compare our social worth. The Social Comparison Process suggests that we use both upward and downward comparison to determine how we stack up with others. If this theory is accurate, then gossip about celebrities helps us two-fold—its downward comparisons let us know that even if we hadn’t achieved fame and fortune before we reached 25, at least we haven’t been arrested, and its upward comparisons allow us to shoot for that day when we can become as successful and charming as that woman on our television screens.
So gossip magazines and television shows aren’t just entertaining us by illustrating the foibles of the down-on-their-luck celebrities; they are providing the source material we need to become the better versions of ourselves. Thanks, TMZ.