Are you following the Olivia-Wilde-Harry-Styles-Florence-Pugh-Don't-Worry-Darling tabloid drama? Yes, we do have relationships with celebrities.
You may have heard about the upcoming Olivia Wilde–directed thriller, Don’t Worry Darling, because of its promising reviews. (It will be released September 23, but premiered at the Venice International Film Festival [PDF] earlier this month.) Or it may be on your radar because of the off-camera drama around the cast’s and crew’s purported feuds, snubs, bad blood, and affairs of the heart (including a romance between director, Wilde, and star, Harry Styles).
We won’t rehash all the details; BuzzFeed News already did so, and Variety, Harper’s Bazaar, and Page Six have all reported on the rumors. Plus several cast and crew have posted their takes on their own social media channels fueling the gossip.
While you may indeed be wondering what the truth is behind these rumors, the media frenzy around them may also leave you questioning: Why do we care so much about celebrity drama? What’s the psychology behind our cultural obsession with gossip? Here’s what two psychologists have to say.
Gossip is so central to our cultural psyche that the American Psychological Association (APA) has its own definition. According to the APA dictionary, gossip consists of personal talk or communication about information that’s often unsubstantiated, and it may be (but is not necessarily) scandalous in content or malicious in intention. Gossip impacts group bonding, and has big implications for the transmission and reinforcement of cultural norms, too, according to the APA.
“There are some people who try to classify gossip as negative or critical discussion about other people, but really, gossip is just sharing social information with each other,” says David Ludden, PhD, department chair of the psychology department at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville. Anytime you’re talking about people who aren’t present, it’s gossip, Dr. Ludden says.
In a study published in April 2019 in the journal Social and Psychological Personality Science, researchers set out to figure out what people gossip about. They found that among a group of 467 participants, about three-quarters of the gossip that people shared was neutral and fairly boring, not positive or negative.
Stephen Benning, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, says gossip often refers to information about other people that is shared that those people whom the information is about would rather be kept private.
“We’re social animals and we need to be able to know what’s going on in social environments, so gossip is very helpful,” says Ludden, who studies the psychology of language and how it shapes and is shaped by our social world.
He gives the example of asking coworkers how a meeting with the boss just went in order to get a sense of the boss’s mood and decide whether or not to ask a favor. Basically, gossip can help you go into social encounters more prepared for what’s coming. “I don’t have to have an encounter with someone directly to have some idea what they’re like, because other people are telling me about their encounters with them,” Ludden says.
It can also be a way to build relationships. “Sharing gossip can bond people socially,” Dr. Benning says. “It provides a currency of private information that creates a shared sense of the community holding that information.” So, gossip is particularly compelling for people who are seeking to connect with others.
We’re also drawn to gossip for some not-so-great reasons. “Sharing ‘juicy gossip’ (the information that harms or denigrates the person being talked about) is also a form of relational aggression, because it attacks people's social standing and their position in social networks,” Benning says. People might engage in this kind of gossip as a way to elevate their own social status, or be included in a social network that they previously weren’t.
“Lots of the bad gossip is done in an attempt to make yourself feel better than the person you’re talking about,” Ludden says. “That’s not a healthy approach to building a sense of self esteem.”
A study published in May 2019 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology validates all of this. Researchers identified six distinct motives for gossiping, including gathering and validating information, building relationships, protecting oneself, social enjoyment, and negative influence. While negative influence (talking badly about someone or trying to cut them down) was a clear motive for some people on certain occasions, the study found that this was actually the weakest motivation that led people to gossip. Gathering and validating information about the person being gossiped about was the strongest.
There’s also some evidence suggesting that negative gossip can have a positive impact on social groups, and promote cooperation (though perhaps not in the most altruistic way).
In an article published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that when people communicated reputational information about others (the researcher’s definition of “gossiped”), others tended to interact with people who were portrayed as cooperative and ostracize those who were portrayed as selfish. As a result, those who were ostracized tended to change their behavior and act more cooperatively.
Figuring out whether you’re engaging in harmless gossip or harmful gossip is pretty easy, says Britt Frank, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in Overland Park, Kansas, and the author of The Science of Stuck. Ask yourself how you’d feel if the person you’re talking about overheard your conversation. Would you feel comfortable about others talking about you in the same way? Would sharing the information have any positive benefits on you and the person listening, like building empathy or imparting some important knowledge? If you answered no to either or both questions, the gossip is likely the negative type.
Per these definitions, you might conclude (as psychologists have) that gossip plays a role in how we socialize with others — it helps us learn more and feel more connected to our networks, or elevate our own status above someone else’s within those networks. So what motivates us to gossip about A-listers we don’t socialize with (and probably never will)?
Just because we’ve never met these celebrities doesn’t mean we don’t have relationships with them. “What we do is we create parasocial relationships, or imaginary relationships, with them,” Ludden says. You might, for example, feel a closeness towards a singer or athlete whose successes you’ve followed and celebrated with them, according to the National Register of Health Services Psychologists.
Like gossip itself, these relationships can be healthy or unhealthy depending on the circumstances. Parasocial bonds can fill the gaps in our real-world relationships, and they’re a risk-free way to feel connected to others, since you can’t be rejected by someone who’s not actually in relationship with you, Ludden says.
But if these relationships are dominating your life — for example, if you’re so invested in a certain celebrity or celebrity relationship that you don’t build real social relationships with people around you — then that’s a bad thing.
Gossiping about these celebrities can be a similarly low-stakes way to feel connected, since the information you’re sharing doesn’t pose a risk to you or a member of your social circle. “It can feel uncomfortable and vulnerable to share information about your own worlds,” Frank says. “Gossiping about celebrities is a safer way to interact with a date, ingratiate yourself to a group at parties, or to feel part of a new team at work.”
It can also serve as a form of stress relief. “When life is overwhelming, focusing on celebrity gossip can be a way to numb out our feelings of dissatisfaction, unhappiness, or stress,” says Frank. “Scrolling through celebrity gossip puts us in a dissociated state where we can take breaks from difficult feelings.”
But just like regular gossip, sometimes the motivation behind celebrity gossip is to make ourselves feel better than others. “Celebrity gossip is a safe way to snack on schadenfreude (the delight in the misfortune of others),” Frank says. “It feels a lot less shameful to admit we enjoy watching celebrity misfortunes than to admit we enjoy watching the misfortunes of family and friends.”
While talking with your friends about the latest celebrity breakup is probably relatively harmless, it’s possible to take things too far and cause the celebrity real harm without ever meeting them.
“Using social media channels to pile on celebrities who are tagged in posts during intense periods of gossip about them can cause genuine mental harm to those celebrities,” Benning says. As is the case with people in your own circles, it can be helpful to put yourself in that celebrity’s shoes (impossible as that may seem) and ask how you’d feel if this kind of information and commentary was being spread about you, he suggests.
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