People are obsessed with public scandals. Boris Johnson’s Partygate continues to be a hot topic of discussion in the UK, and in the US, 24-years later the Clinton-Lewinsky drama is a pop-cultural juggernaut for all the wrong reasons. We gape and gawk, we raise eyebrows and whisper, and we devour scandals as if they were a slice of hot apple pie. But what's made us so obsessed with all things scandalous?
The science behind public scandals
Scandals can mean different things to different people, but they’re generally centred around immoral conduct, damage to people's reputations, vengeful gossip, and public outcry. The writer Myisha Cherry argues that devouring scandalous content makes people feel better about themselves, and has nicknamed this phenomenon ‘moral superiority syndrome’. Attribution bias, when people criticise others for doing something that they would (most likely) do themselves in the same situation, helps to explain why people judge others and are quick to comment on all things scandal-related. The sense of superiority people feel creates a feeding frenzy – the drama livens up people's lives and they can’t get enough of the voyeuristic pleasure derived from consuming scandalous content.
Sociologists and historians have long argued that the morals people live by are socially produced. This means that community members tend to mimic those around them, with scandals erupting not at the point people discover there's been some sort of wrongdoing, but at the point where society collectively decides enough is enough. While scandals may be fascinating to most, there's a sense of collective confusion when they make their way into public discourse – 48% of people say it is hard to tell the difference between what’s true and what’s not true when using social media, and just 38% of people believe news media makes their best effort to cover the stories important to the public. Nevertheless, people continue to come for the scandal drama, and stay for the tea.
Pop culture’s scandalous appeal
Fascinated by seeing A-listers fall from grace? Obsessed with elected officials getting their comeuppance? When personal failings become public knowledge and people have a front-row seat to someone's wrongdoings – whether that be your favourite celebrity, a government employee, or a long-lost friend you used to be close with in high school – it's akin to reading someone’s diary or exposing their innermost thoughts. Lives are put on display for the world to see, and YouTube channels like The Swaddle dissect why people love scandals and why they get so much attention. But they are if anything, relative. What causes a scandal one year may not cause one the next. An impropriety in one country may not be such a big deal halfway across the world.
It goes without saying, pop culture is infatuated with anything that remotely resembles a sense of misconduct. Prestige primetime shows are now all about bad behaviour, with A Very British Scandal, Anatomy of a Scandal, Bad Vegan, and Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King drawing in audiences that thrive off on-screen spectacles and theatrical tension. The intensity and pressures of modern life have led people to find comfort and relief in seeing someone else fail, in turn spurring a new sector of entertainment that raises more questions than it solves. Is there an end in sight for the scandal machine? No one knows for sure. But however scandalous something may seem, it's nothing without a scandalised public.