Celebrity gossip is good for you

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Why celebrity gossip is good for you
Monday, 23 November 2009 13:02 | | Rather than being just a guilty pleasure, discussing celebrity gossip can have useful and beneficial results, writes Mari Gallagher.

Addiction to celebrity gossip can be attributed to its relative “safety”. It is “safer” to chew over the doings of the lives of celebrities than those of “real” people.

There is a saying that goes: “A gossip is a person who will never tell a lie if the truth will do as much damage.” In the case of celebrity gossip, you can spread rumours, give opinions, and spend hours speculating about the lives of the rich and famous because they don’t know you and your words won’t come back to haunt you. In contrast, if you indulge in “real” gossip and the victim finds out, your reputation and reliability as a friend is at stake. We’re addicted to celebrity gossip because it’s easy.

Last year, I observed and discussed, with obsessive interest, the demise of a marriage. The speculation went on for months. There were rumours of new partners, separate houses, rows in public etc.. Finally, the announcement was made: Madonna and Guy Ritchie were divorcing. I scanned the photos of her, her carefully-maintained face and physique, considered the extent of her enduring success and the immensity of her personal fortune, and experienced a wave of an emotion known as Schadenfreude – a delight in the misery of others.

Here was a woman who enjoyed the type of enduring artistic success that can only be dreamed of, and she’s not able to keep a marriage together. Suddenly, she’s human and struggling like the rest of us. The buzz I was getting from reading of Madonna’s marital struggles is what makes celebrity gossip so addictive. We see celebrities endeavouring to cope with life situations and it allows a waft of smugness.

Look at them, we think, with all their beauty, fame and fortune and they’re not even able to keep their noses clean. More importantly, talking about celebrities does not have the inherent dangers of “real” gossip.

Dr Charlotte de Backer is an evolutionary psychologist and lecturer at the University of Leicester in the UK, and has written a thesis on the health benefits of celebrity gossip. Her thesis analyses the use of celebrity gossip in an interpersonal setting, looking at what is being talked about and why people talk about celebrities with real-life friends and others.

She tells us that “it is widely known that eating chocolate stimulates the release of endorphins, and, therefore, feelings of happiness. Gossip is also an instant stimulator of endorphins.”

By giving us a common vocabulary, celebrity gossip allows us to chat and bond, express our emotions and consequently experience feelings of happiness. De Backer also tells us that “ideally we mimic what makes others successful and avoid unsuccessful actions others have trialled (and paid for).”

The recent, untimely death of reality TV star Jade Goody comes to mind here. Her death brought a focus on cervical cancer and the necessity for early and regular smears and is a strong example of the positive side of preoccupation with the struggles and misfortunes of celebrities.

Professor of psychology at Knox College, Illinois, US Dr Francis T McAndrew has recently written in Scientific American Mind magazine that “gossip serves as a useful social function in bonding group members together. In the distant past, when humans lived in small bands and meeting strangers was a rare occurrence, gossip helped to survive and thrive.”

A few months ago, I was having a telephone conversation with a friend of mine who had just started a new job working in human resources. I expressed my surprise when she was checking the time to ensure that she wouldn’t miss an update on reality TV show Big Brother as it wasn’t her usual viewing.

She informed me that keeping up-to-date with the goings-on in the show gave her material for coffee room conversation with the group of staff that reported to her. She admitted that by keeping abreast of the show’s daily “non-happenings” , she was able to chat sociably with the staff in a neutral and non-committal manner and consequently build the essential rapport to conduct other more serious work-related matters.

And in case the gentlemen who might be reading this article are of the opinion that celebrity gossip is the preserve of the female population, discussions around sport are also classified as celebrity gossip. It doesn’t require the citation of any research, although I’m sure it’s out there, to confirm that the discussion of spectator sport is one of the uppermost topics of male chit-chat.

The whys and wherefores of the soccer team’s position in the World Cup grouping, the mechanics around the scoring of a crucial goal, the consequences of the missing of a vital putt, all constitute subject matter for bonding, unity and entertainment amongst the general male population, with all its attendant health benefits.

While on the subject of sport, the controversy generated by the recent courageous “coming out” of Cork hurler Donal Og Cusack, is a fine example of the positive benefits of discussing the lives of others. The resultant frank and open discourse on homophobia in sporting circles was a very welcome development and such discourse will assuredly pave the way for a move towards a more understanding and tolerant society.

Hopefully, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of 26th American President Theodore Roosevelt, was referring to celebrity gossip when she once said. “If you haven’t anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”

Mari Gallagher is the 2009 winner of the South Western Regional Drugs Task Force (SWRDTF) “Getting the Message Out” media competition with her article on alcohol abuse, entitled A Nation in Denial