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Christian Jarrett: Do our minds just desperately need celeb gossip ?!

13 Mar Christian Jarrett: Do our minds just desperately need celeb gossip ?!

WHETHER IT’S JUSTIN Beiber crashing his car or Kanye having another Grammys tantrum, celebrity gossip is always in the news. We love it and the media serves it up. But these days, such truisms aren’t enough. You have to measure an aspect of human behavior in the brain scanner to show it’s the case scientifically. 

That’s what a group of Chinese researchers have done for a paper just published in the journal Social Neuroscience. I’m usually skeptical about this kind of study, but this one is pretty interesting because the brain activity patterns were inconsistent with the behavioral data.

The set up was simple: the students, 17 of them, each lay in a brain scanner and listened to a woman read sentences of gossip about either the student him or herself; about one of their best friends; or about a celebrity (one of two Chinese film stars for whom the participants said they had no special interest). The gossip was in the form of a description of something good or bad the target person had done – such as helping people to find their missing children, or driving under the influence and crashing a car.

As well as having their brain activity recorded, the students rated how amusing they found the short stories. Based on these ratings, the students preferred listening to positive gossip about themselves than to positive gossip about their friends or celebrities. On the other hand, they enjoyed negative gossip more when it was about friends and celebrities than when it was about themselves. So far, no surprise: most people are vain and egocentric.

It gets more interesting when we focus on the students’ enjoyment of negative celebrity gossip versus negative gossip about friends. Based on their ratings, the students said they enjoyed these two kinds of story the same. But this jars with anecdotal evidence from the media – the incredible popularity of TMZ.com and other websites suggests there’s something distinctly pleasurable about the news of celebrity transgressions.