A Psychologist Explains Why You Need Celebrity Gossip in Your Life

August 5th 2016

As the dust settles after the #KimExposedTaylorParty, the inevitable question arises from the social media snippets, snake emoji, reciepts, legal threats, and hot takes: Why? Specifically, why do we care about these quarreling famous people and which ones are telling the truth?

ATTN: asked Frank McAndrew, a social psychologist and professor at Knox College. McAndrew has published a large body of research on what make us care about celebrities and why we gossip about them.

The following has been edited for clarity.

ATTN: On a psychological level, why are people so interested in gossip about celebrities?

Frank McAndrew: One possible explanation may be found in the fact that celebrity is a relatively recent phenomenon, evolutionarily speaking. In our ancestral world, any person about whom we knew intimate details of his or her private life was, by definition, socially important to us.

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. Thus, 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. After all, anyone whom we see that often and know that much about must be socially important to us.

ATTN: What forms did this impulse take before TV and the internet?

Frank McAndrew: People have always been interested in anyone they knew a lot about. Hollywood stars in the 1930s and 1940s were obsessed over because people knew about them through movies, radio, and magazines.

Before that, people had always been interested in gossip about individuals who were socially important to them, either because they dealt with them every day, or because they were powerful people who could influence their lives. I am sure that in medieval Europe, the serfs were keenly interested in the political and social lives of the lords and nobles who controlled their fates.

ATTN: What makes us take sides in celebrity feuds in particular?

Frank McAndrew: People form what are called "parasocial relationships" with celebrities. This is a one-way relationship in which the fan pays attention to and follows the lives of the celebrity, but the celebrity pays no attention to the fan.

In spite of this, the familiarity that one develops with the celebrity fosters a feeling of friendship (or even kinship!), which triggers all of the same emotional mechanisms that one would experience with real friends and relatives. Hence, one can become very protective of one's own celebrities, and this causes us to vilify and hate other celebrities who appear to be the enemies of "our" celebrities.

ATTN: People were captivated by the recent reveal that Taylor Swift may have lied about approving Kanye West lyrics. This seems similar to how anti-Clinton people tend to paint Hillary Clinton as a liar.

Frank McAndrew: Yes — loyalty goes a long way, and it trumps facts.

ATTN: Why do you think a celebrity lying or allegedly lying triggers such massive outrage?

Frank McAndrew: If it is a celebrity whom we already do not like, I suspect that it does NOT produce outrage. Rather, it provokes more of a "See, I told you he/she was like that" response. The outrage is reserved for previously beloved celebrities by whom we feel betrayed.

ATTN: Do people react differently to being lied to by a public figure than being mislead, deceived, or lied to by those they know?

Frank McAndrew: It depends upon the level of attachment the individual feels with the celebrity in question. If it is a celebrity one feels deeply attached to, then, yes, the outrage is as great as if it was a person one personally knows.

ATTN: I get the sense that the mob mentality of social media outrage against public figures can lead people to express vitriol with an intensity they might not otherwise. Do you think that's the case? If so, how would you explain it from a psychological standpoint?

Frank McAndrew: Yes. Social media allows us to quickly see that we have allies who share our reaction, which helps to convince us that we are correct and morally justified in our outrage. There is strength in numbers, and nothing conveys the illusion of social support like social media.

ATTN: Is there a point at which caring about celebrities and pop culture becomes unhealthy?

Frank McAndrew: If one's involvement with celebrities becomes so all-consuming that it causes us to neglect real relationships in our real lives, then yes, I would judge it to be unhealthy.

ATTN: How would you describe a healthy dose or level of engagement with the pop cultural zeitgeist?

Frank McAndrew: It would be hard to prescribe an exact dose. Being in touch with pop culture (i.e., the cultural zeitgeist) is part of being a socially skilled person. In the modern world, celebrities may serve another important social function. In a highly mobile, industrial society, they may be the only "friends" we have in common with new neighbors and coworkers.

Think of them as "friends-in-law." 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.

Hence, keeping up with the lives of actors, politicians, and athletes can make a person more socially adept during interactions with strangers and even provide segues into social relationships with new friends in the virtual world of the internet.

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