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See Inside October/November 2008

The Science of Gossip: Why We Can't Stop Ourselves

It helped us thrive in ancient times, and in our modern world it makes us feel connected to others—as long as it is done properly



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In the past few years I have heard more people than ever before puzzling over the 24/7 coverage of people such as Paris Hilton who are “celebrities” for no apparent reason other than we know who they are. And yet we can’t look away. The press about these individuals’ lives continues because people are obviously tuning in. Although many social critics have bemoaned this explosion of popular culture as if it reflects some kind of collective character flaw, it is in fact nothing more than the inevitable outcome of the collision between 21st-century media and Stone Age minds.

When you cut away its many layers, our fixation on popular culture reflects an intense interest in the doings of other people; this preoccupation with the lives of others is a by-product of the psychology that evolved in prehistoric times to make our ancestors socially successful. Thus, it appears that we are hardwired to be fascinated by gossip.

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