I’m not one to gossip, but…

February 21, 2015 by Martha’s Dad

gossip-4323583Be honest, we all enjoy a bit of celebrity gossip now and again. Who was seen with someone they shouldn’t, perhaps somewhere they shouldn’t, and if they haven’t paid their taxes either… But have you noticed how the stories that attract the most attention are generally the more negative ones?  Magazine publishers know this… Good news is all very well, but bad news sells a lot more copy!  Why?!?

A new study by Peng and his colleagues over in the Journal of Social Neuroscience sheds a little more light on an old subject, thanks to the latest in brain imaging techniques. Subjects were scanned while being read gossip about themselves and about celebrities.  Some stories were positive and even humorous, others were more negative and downright salacious. The participants all reported different reactions to the stories they were exposed to and their brain scans suggested this is largely due to the different patterns of neural activity being triggered.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, we are all narcissistic egotists – we pay more attention to positive stories about ourselves, especially when they are funny or associated with some other positive emotional response.  So far, so good.  The most interesting findings, however, concerned the clear preferences expressed for celebrity gossip, even over that concerning our friends and colleagues.  It seems we are more likely to pay attention here when the stories are negative and scandalous, again beautifully reflected in the brain imagery.  Crucially, though, we are also likely to find such stories far more amusing than we are prepared to admit!

The scans show activation of areas strongly associated with humour, even when we swear blind that we don’t find the story funny at all.  Put another way, even if we don’t express this out loud or openly admit it, our brains at least are inclined to laugh at the misfortunes of others – especially the rich and famous.