Essays and Theories

Evolutionary Psychology and Hollywood, Part I:
The Brain, the Big Screen, and the Origin of Gossip
William A. Spriggs
March 1997

Some critics see only horrors when they pontificate over Hollywood. I, however, prefer to see only the wonderful things that Hollywood has done over the years. Somewhere on Earth there may be people who never heard of Hollywood. If so, they probably still have been touched by its brilliance.

Hollywood has a enormous impact on our planet in terms of cultural, moral, and attitudinal currents. Its movies can inspire, scold, teach, support, idealize, debate, or reject moral and cultural issues on a global scale. But despite its far-reaching planetary influence, it still comes down to how each of us alone responds on an individual basis to the movies we watch. Each person in the movie house is nothing more than an individual piece in the global behavioral puzzle. How appropriate, then, that one of Hollywood’s nicknames is "The Dream Factory." The nickname represents one of the processes by which the brain creates morals, and attitudes, and cultures, mixes them with our memories of past sequential events and stored DNA instructions, and analyzes all this information, and then contributes to the life decisions we make. These are the subjects of higher conscious thought that we call our consciousness. And whether we want to admit it, Hollywood plays a big part in helping us to mold these thoughts.

Why do we enjoy paying money to sit in a large, dark hall and allow ourselves to be overtaken mentally by a story that is presented upon a large illuminated screen, complete with sounds beyond the normal range? How does this strange interaction between ourselves, the screen, and the complete strangers in the theater occur? What evolutionary need does Hollywood fulfill that allows the industry to grow larger every year?

Well, for several important reasons, I think. First, the fun we have in a movie theater derives from the hard, physical vistas taken in by the eyes without being alert for danger. We are in a receptive brain wave state of mind which contributes to relaxation. The second attraction is that these invited vistas are then combined with certain conceptual problem-solving mechanisms we draw from our life’s memories; together these help contribute to this relaxation, or, perhaps, these mechanisms interrupt a lesson from the narrative that we find profitable. (An important note--close your eyes and create an image in your mind. Does the created visual image appear in front of you, in back of you, or above you? In my brain, the images I create appear somewhere in front of me and slightly above eye level. It would appear that we can create a large area of visualization within our minds, as vast as our favorite movie theater, merely by calling up from our memories events we desire and placing those memories in the "image theater" of our minds.

During normal activity--when we are not relaxing and watching the big screen, the brain can replay images from old stored memories or create new ones by constructing new imaginary events by adding on to the old ones, like a child with building blocks. But here is the catch--this takes effort. The creation of images puts us on alert and into an entirely different brain wave pattern. Brain wave patterns are indicative of the movement of all the neurological ions, electrons, and neurotransmitters--our mode of problem-solving. In order to create new images, or to create new solutions to a problem, you have to create new brain muscle, or rather, not really muscle tissue, but new neuronal connections. In visualizing the creation of new connections, try to imagine trudging through knee-high snow drifts. You can do it, but it’s slow and difficult at first. If you go backwards from where you started, then traverse the same area again from the original starting point; the going is a bit easier. If you desire, you may store away into your memory areas those thoughts that you choose to store, as a learning process within these stored memories that you find particular comfort, strength, inspiration, avoidance, or attraction. And this is where Hollywood excels as it produces images so profound they can last a lifetime.

After your brain stores this information, any further action or thought review is easier than the previous review. Just as repetitive studies or endless practicing of the piano makes learning a form of repeating movements, so too, does the brain build highways of information necessary for learning. The movie screen duplicates the problem-solving and dream sequencing mechanisms of the brain--without the effort. We achieve the prize we seek through ease rather than work. There is no trudging through knee-high snow drifts to get to a particular destination. We merely select the movie category and subject, pay a small price, sit back, relax, and store the information we have seen before us for later use if we desire. If we think the experience was worthwhile or avoidable, we pass that information on to our friends and family to profit from or avoid, and a blockbuster or financial disaster is born. But in either case, here’s the best part: We get to snuggle next to our favorite person and eat popcorn too!

Another profitable area of speculation concerning the magic of film is group communications. I believe that deep within our genes are instructions we use for alerting a group we may be part of to be alert for possible danger. While in the dark movie theater we are all intently absorbed in the participatory activity both as individuals and as a group. If we are all concentrating on the events on the screen, even the slightest activity that could possibly be interpreted as important to the group’s survival is transmitted by the individuals in unconscious verbal or body language. We can all remember at least one scary scene from one of our favorite movies which caused us to expel a small verbal gasp or body preservation movement. These small verbal excitations and body movements, if totaled together, can create a group communication representing a warning of danger. My point here is that the communal communications gave directional signals of danger avoidance to help in survival mechanisms. In short, when an entire audience gasps in fear or cheers for joy, I hazard to guess that it is a form of evolved intragroup communications.

Group communication is just one form of group survival information. The survival information that stays with us the longest are the instructional lessons taught to us by family and friends. These lessons usually concern behavioral techniques, moral and cultural guidelines, and specific mechanisms necessary for survival. Our family and friends receive the greatest benefit from our survival, and because of that, they usually are the ones that watch over us and inculcate us with information that they feel is most important. In fact, our successful evolution from the savanna plain and the rain forest trees evolved from, first, helping our family members, and then helping others of our same species in a behavior mechanism we call altruism. Unfortunately, along with the moral things we need to know come the dredges of our jungle environment concerning prejudices.

To those who are do not to have biological family, the brain helps to heal this loss with its ability to create a familial bond with friends; those who support us and mean us no harm. The teenage generation of today is no different from the preceding generation, or the one before them in that every young generation depends on the close bond that is created by having a close circle of friends. That is why teenagers form groupings and tag, in name or mental bond, their particular group as a family. They talk alike, dress alike, dance alike and dream alike. They give each other support and approval for their actions. They share information helpful to each other, and, when ready, venture out in search of their place in the grownup world. One of the great joys of teenage life is going to the movies together and discussing amongst themselves all the moral, ethical, emotional, and sexual issues that Hollywood has placed before them. From these discussions, core beliefs about how to approach strategies into the adulthood phase of their lives develops.

Adults also form various friendship groups for strength, companionship, and moral and cultural guidelines. Church, civic, business, political and social groups help to continue this grouping behavior we human animals seem to need. How these groupings of toddlers, teenagers and grownups evolved is of course speculation, as is most of evolutionary psychology, but by observing our primate cousins today (who share 98.6% of our genetic building blocks) a growing consensus believes that our grouping behavior grew from what primatologists call "grooming"; that is, two or more primates getting together to pick lice and small squiggly things from the hair of a family member or friend. Field studies show that this practice has a calming affect on the participants, and is practiced almost constantly when participants are not engaged in eating, sleeping, fighting, or mating. It is logical to assume, but still speculative, that our ancestors did the same thing. To further speculate, it is during this calming period that important information concerning survival was passed. This of course is dependent on the development of some sort of communication between our primate cousins and ancestors. Body and hand language, in combination with facial expressions, are without a doubt our oldest form of language. The development of the larynx in Homo Sapiens gave us the further ability to form words and to increase the messages during grooming.

As our species further developed these verbal communications, the most effective way to pass this valuable information was from parent to child. In this form of communication, the information most likely would be how to search for food, which foods were good to eat, and, perhaps, the ranking requirements of their group. Amongst friends, the information may be less survival oriented and thus would be considered what today we call gossip. This form of communication transcends cultural guidelines and personal behavior mechanisms. Information that is exchanged during calm periods, like the grooming period done by our primate cousins, is more likely to be believed and then stored into memory storage than information passed during periods of angst. It is also why we love the movies, because they help to lift us from negative thoughts that depress us, even if they are lifted for just for a few hours.

Let's get one thing straight--gossip is not really idle chatter that only little old ladies practice. It is used by all age groups and genders to pass important information. To our ancestors it most likely contained important information concerning food source locations, male territory battles, safe areas to sleep, and mating partner possibilities. Today, depending on our stage in life and gender, gossip fluctuates according to your cultural location and needs. Not only is gossip an information-gathering mechanism, it can also entail complicated and sophisticated manipulative behavior mechanisms. Males primarily use gossip to forge alliances to determine ranking and hence resource allocations. In our primate cousins, the more resources a male has, the better chance for attracting a higher-ranking female. An example of male gossip is the practice of derogating an opponent of higher rank in order to gain assistance from someone else to capture some of the controlling male’s resources. The practice is akin to the peasants overthrowing the King. In reverse, the controlling male can use gossip to derogate a lower-ranking opponent to other lower-ranking males to keep the advancing low-ranking male away from his resources. The high-ranking male has the advantage because he already holds resources that the other males covet. The higher-ranking male usually distributes some of his resources to these assistants for protection and thus blocks the entrance to the advancing male.

Female adult gossip today is not as aggressive as the male, but can be just as varied. Females also compete amongst themselves for career opportunities, but in particular, Hollywood female-to-female gossip today seems to be directed at other women’s physical attractiveness. Female physical appearance is important because, in our evolutionary past, as today, physical appearance of the female in the mate selection years helped in the selection of the male willing to commit resources. The more physically attractive, the more competition for the female occurred. The higher the competition, the higher the rank of the male. The higher the rank of the male, the more resources that he likely possessed, which he then would most likely would be willing to allocate to her children. This is of course helps the survival of the species by producing the fittest that resources can bring. Because of their weak physical nature and the necessity to nurture the child in our evolutionary past, the female has concentrated on this physical attraction mechanism, and most gossip practiced by this mating age group is primarily used to elevate or deflate other female competitors in the ranking process.

Remember this: all gossip, rumor, innuendo, and misinformation is a form of communication that affects ourselves and others. So, when we listen to our popular Hollywood TV reporting show that tells us about all the comings and goings, ups and downs, wheelings and dealings, and box office winners or losers, what we are really listening to is information about resource allocation and exchange, social ranking, housing resource exchanges, mating prospects, fashions of groupings, and clues to improving physical attractiveness--all information that we deem important. Only instead of our ancestral groupings in the past on the savanna passing survival information, we humans pass the same type, but evolved information, around the water cooler at the office or over the airwaves. We are receiving and storing survival information about people whom we idealize and wish to emulate on a national scale. The process is the same, just on a larger scale. Not only is Hollywood The Dream Factory, it's also a guiding light. For better or worse.

Origin: March, 1997

Updated: July, 1997

William A. Spriggs

As an update to support my theory of grooming and gossip, I want to suggest a new book by professor Robin Dunbar. He is professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool and the title of his book is: Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Harvard University Press, 1997. is so nice when professors write about themes that strengthen my theories.

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