Why We Love a Good Scandal
Controversy and moral indignation make people feel better about themselves.
A classic love triangle, astronauts, and diapers. These became the makings of the Lisa Nowak scandal. In 2007, astronaut Lisa Nowak drove from Florida to Texas; she carried a knife, pepper spray, pistol and, well, diapers to sustain her through the 14-hour drive. This was to confront a woman who was dating her boyfriend at that time. The scandal ended with her dismissal from NASA when she also pleaded guilty to the felony of attempted murder.
The “never-told-before” saga of an American hero spiraling into mental illness gripped millions globally. It also went on to inspire a movie. Author Laura Kipnis called the story “almost better than fiction.”
The lure of this and any scandal feels instinctive. The orbit of controversy pulls people; their attention piqued by lies, secrets, betrayals. It is a window into the world of self-destruction.
The cultural obsession with scandals, however, comes from a place of misguided morality. “Scandal” carries the assumption of notoriety and moral transgressions. “For one thing, the temptation and pleasure of moralizing about other people’s transgressions let us off the hook for transgressions we’ve committed or maybe contemplated committing,” Kipnis noted.
Writer Myisha Cherry also called this the “moral superiority syndrome,” arguing that scandals make people feel better about themselves. “Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argues that in order to be happy in life, one ought to be virtuous. For Aristotle, this virtue could only come through moral habit and intellectual training. “But these days, for some of us, happiness doesn’t come from the Aristotelian concept of doing good, but from watching others do so bad,” Cherry wrote in HuffPost. In other words, a scandal serves as a reference point for ourselves, and if we would respond to the situation in a similar way. There is also an exaggeration of the “good” and “bad” dichotomy. The scandal also shows that the “transgressor” gets punished in a way, perhaps restoring people’s faith in the order of the universe.
But “getting pleasure from the failures of others may be a lot easier than working on our own moral development, but it should never be a substitute for it,” Cherry argued.
On a visceral level, it is also the idea of people who, much like us, failed to abide by a social norm. Just in a much more public setting. There is an inherent contradiction in every scandal. With sex scandals or infidelity, for example, the conflict is in trying to balance sexual freedom while upholding a conventional marriage. Personal failings become public, as people try to grapple with the familiarity of these transgressions. “That’s a simple way to think about why somebody gets themselves into a scandal. They just wanted more, and they didn’t negotiate their way around relevant prohibitions with enough finesse,” Kipnis told Zocalo.
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There is also a sense of familiarity; the realization that famous people who are well-admired face a lot of the same problems others would. Scandals become a catalyst to fantasizing about the lives people don’t lead but could lead. Arguably, there is vicarious pleasure in experiencing an “other” life, while remaining safe and secure in ordinary existence. There’s also a thrill in watching someone “get away with it,” as author Adam Phillips wrote in Missing Out.
The fixation also feeds into our desire to be voyeurs, to have access to private messages and inner thoughts. Having the first row seats to people’s intimacy and vulnerability is akin to “reading someone’s diary or their innermost thoughts,” Australian psychologist Elisabeth Shaw told Honey. “It can make someone feel closer to the person speaking.” Think the Taylor Swift, Kanye, and Kim Kardashian leaked conversation saga. The thrill of being the one who knows someone’s secret remains unrivaled.
Or when the secretly recorded phone conversation, in which the Prince of Wales said he would “love” to be a rather personal item of Camilla’s, was notoriously leaked to the press. The public was hooked. As Shaw says: “It’s like “getting something from the horse’s mouth, instead of reading speculation.”
Also, the cardinal rule that marks every scandal’s success: sex sells. It speaks to cultural anxiety around desire and intimacy; “leaked” pictures or conversations dangle in front of people as something forbidden. “Human nature forces most people to be more naturally interested in sex. Basic human passions and functions, that’s what people are naturally interested in,” author Carla Sinclair wrote in a paper, explaining people’s obsessions with sex scandals.
This also speaks to people’s love for conspiracies in general. Picking up clues, recognizing patterns, and figuring out things for ourselves — these are evolutionary tendencies. This, however, doesn’t mean people are always right. Yet, it doesn’t stop them from taking out their magnifying glass. Scandals tend to make detectives out of all of us. “We get to be the armchair psychoanalyst, and then [we] also get to be the judge, and the jury,” Kipnis told Newsweek, adding it is people’s big collective superego” that keeps the “scandal hot.”
Arguably, from celebrity sex tapes to leaked secrets, people play a critical role in the making of a scandal. Which also means they must be made wary of the damage scandals may leave behind. The sense of sadism and pleasure must also have room for humanity and kindness.
The truth remains, as Psychology Today puts it: “People can’t get enough of it — every morsel is chewed and devoured like delicious rich cake.”
Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.