Celebrity DUIs and Other Misdeeds: Why Are We Obsessed with Them?

Justin Bieber. Lindsey Lohan. Paris Hilton. Kevin Hart. Chris Pine. Reese Witherspoon. Bella Hadid. This list represents a mere handful of known names who have been charged with DUI in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) over the past 10 years, with many others right alongside. It seems so commonplace that, as HuffPost reports, during an appearance on, Jason Priestly joked with Chelsea Handler on her show Chelsea Lately about his own DUI. “What self-respecting Los Angeleno doesn’t have a DUI under their belt?” he said. The joke was accompanied by high-fives with Handler, who, not surprisingly, also has a DUI on her record.

Aside from the controversy of famous people downplaying the seriousness of impaired driving, salacious reports of celebrity wrongdoing have been the guilty pleasure of millions of people for as long as anyone can remember. These impulses of ours are what keep websites like TMZ and The National Enquirer in business.

The question is: Why?

What in our minds makes a celebrity DUI more fascinating to us than, say, our neighbor across the street? More to the point, why do we judge the two by different standards, when virtually every instance of DUI puts people in danger, whether or not the perpetrator is famous?

What do I mean by “different standards”? Let’s suppose you found out your next-door neighbor was arrested for DUI; the same day, a news report surfaced that one of your favorite TV stars was arrested for DUI. Depending on your temperament, you’re likely to respond in one of two ways:

〈 You might feel a tinge of inward disdain for your neighbor while winking the eye (metaphorically) at the celebrity (“Well, that’s Hollywood for you”); OR
〈 You might respond in the opposite way, having mercy on your neighbor while judging the celebrity for failing as a role model.

The Science Behind It

An article in Medical Daily explores some studies on human responses to celebrity gossip—particularly the negative variety. While evolution has apparently wired our brains to hone in on gossip, we actually experience a different chemical response when the gossip pertains to someone we perceive as “important.” The article cites a specific study, conducted on students in China, which uncovered three important patterns:

1. We respond positively to positive gossip about ourselves;
2. We respond positively to negative gossip about others; and
3. We derive additional enjoyment from negative gossip about celebrities.

In other words—news about celebrity failures truly are a “guilty pleasure” that most people enjoy. However, this and other studies stop short of explaining why we enjoy it so much, leaving it very much in the realm of speculation.

Common Theories

Experts and thought leaders offer a number of theories as to what attracts us to news about celebrity DUIs and other run-ins with the law. Here are a few of the most common ideas.

We seek the guilty pleasure for its own sake. Psychologist James Houran tells LiveScience, “In our society, celebrities act like a drug. They’re around us everywhere. They’re an easy fix.”

We relate to them. In a combination of emulation and comparison, we tend to gravitate toward famous people in a familiar way that defies logic. We feel like we know the TV star who got a DUI, even though we never met them, yet we’ll feel emotionally distant from our neighbor who just got arrested. “We tend to use familiar tones when gossiping about celebrities,” explains Jackie Griffith in Odyssey. “Emulating them sometimes causes us to empathize with them and we begin to grow attached.”

We treat their failure as a cautionary tale. Film production instructor Anne Sobel writes in HuffPost, it gives us a way to think of the issue, putting ourselves in the same place. “Like all gossip, celebrity gossip is a way to assess our values.” However, when you gossip about the famous, “You aren’t, for example, backstabbing your neighbors …. Instead, you are discussing people whose lives you have virtually no influence on, and who often put personal matters in the public discourse for exactly this kind of conjecture.”

The failures of successful others make us feel better about ourselves. It’s not a trait we should be proud of, but it seems to hold true for most of us. Whether fueled by jealousy or other factors, people tend to feel satisfaction when a person of privilege is brought down to size. Comedian Liz Meile tells CNN, “It’s just that we like feeling better than them. We live these kind of mundane, lame lives or at least that’s how we feel most of the time. Then when somebody [famous] curses off their girlfriend or somebody ends up in rehab or somebody gets a DUI all of a sudden we’re like, ‘Well, I didn’t mess up my life that much.”’

The Important Takeaway

Regardless of why we place more importance on celebrity DUIs than other such incidents, we must remember one thing: Law enforcement doesn’t care if you’re famous or not. DUI is DUI. We may debate whether judges show partiality for fame—or punish it more severely—but driving under the influence is dangerous no matter who does it, and law enforcement will arrest you if you do it.

If you’re facing a DUI charge and need legal help, give us a call. Attorney Kraut is a Harvard Law School educated attorney with decades of courtroom experience. He and his team can help you get clarity on your next steps and feel back in control.

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