Why we can't stop peeking into other people's lives

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Humans are curious – and we’re looking into each other's lives more than ever. But in a pandemic, this might not simply be a nosy habit.

As our own social worlds have shrunk as a result of the pandemic, the lives of others have never been more compelling. 

We’re browsing photo essays capturing the workdays of overstretched medical staff, consuming news about politicians breaking lockdown and celebrities jetting off to private islands. Some of us peek outside to see which neighbours wear masks to take out the rubbish. We’re also spending record amounts of time online: UK watchdog Ofcom found last June that adults were spending on average a quarter of their waking day using the internet, while a global survey early in the pandemic found 40% of consumers were spending longer on social media.   

It’s not surprising we’re consuming information, news and personal updates. We’ve always been curious as a species; our own stories are formed by the exchanges we have with other people’s lives and stories, says Brunel University London senior lecturer Anne Chappell, who recently examined this behavior alongside Plymouth University associate professor Julie Parsons. During the pandemic, however, our interest in other people’s lives seems to be reaching new heights.

We've always been curious – but now we have so many more ways to learn about other people (Credit: Alamy)

We've always been curious – but now we have so many more ways to learn about other people (Credit: Alamy)

But although it may seem a bit nosy – or even voyeuristic – this urge may not be a bad thing. In times like these, when behaviours and norms are unprecedented and evolving, observing other people can help us process each twist and turn of the pandemic – and even learn how to adapt ourselves. 

A shared understanding 

Of course, voyeurism is nothing new. We had society pages giving accounts of proto-Kardashians in 19th Century newspapers well before we had People magazine, which emerged well before Instagram Stories. Today, though, we have far more ways to peek over the metaphorical fence than we did even a decade ago. News providers have proliferated, offering think pieces and photo essays that add dimension and human perspectives to the stories of the day. On social media, we don’t just have Facebook, but Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and now Clubhouse – a plethora of diversified platforms that all provide different ways to observe others. 

This desire to look into the lives of others isn’t just voyeurism, however: the word, says Chappell, often implies illicit or sexual behaviour – a passive observer watching others actively engage, sometimes but not always with the consent of those being watched. Yet what we get from looking at other people’s stuff – an act, says Chappell, that is often unconscious on our parts – isn’t a “morbid fascination”. Rather, it is a more active exchange, an effort to make sense of the world around us. Chappell mentions the historical diaries of people like Anne Frank, saying they’re more than one person’s thoughts – they tell us about both the individual life and how society functioned around them.

Observing other people can help us process each twist and turn of the pandemic

Our desire to observe, then, seems to be born from a desire to exchange information about who we are through the stories we tell about ourselves. “All the stories that we encounter directly in person with other people – and those we read about and see about and hear about and engage with – are all having some kind of impact in shaping our shared understandings of society,” says Chappell. 

Learning and processing 

Since Covid-19 swept the globe, we’re even more interested in these stories; our heightened desire to consume all kinds of information in part reflects our curtailed daily lives. Whether it’s colleagues we’re missing from the office or the parents from your child’s football team, “with increased social isolation during the pandemic, we are more curious and interested in the lives of those around us”, says Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital. 

Social media, something that brings an element of escapism from the same four walls, allows us to peer into the lives of others on a virtual plane – whether by analysing bookshelves of interviewees or obsessing over a viral recipe strangers make in their kitchens. It provides a placebo for connection opportunities in the real world that have been stripped away, says Laura Tarbox, an expert in cultural and brand strategy who studies emerging shifts and behaviours in social media for clients.   

Although these interactions might not be as satisfying as real-life encounters, social-media platforms are one of the few ways we have left to spontaneously connect with other humans, says Romanoff. Platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat all help us cross virtual paths with those we’d otherwise likely never meet during lockdown, adds Tarbox. 

Observing the lives of medical professionals helps us process the pandemic's impact on our society (Credit: Alamy)

Observing the lives of medical professionals helps us process the pandemic's impact on our society (Credit: Alamy)

Social media also plays a role in rapidly establishing new norms, something that becomes clear when we cringe at photos of unmasked guests at a wedding, or pass judgement on palm-tree-filled Instagrams of a celebrity’s clearly non-essential travel. “We've been monitoring social media, both consciously and unconsciously, to gain an understanding of the new ‘rules’ of acceptability during the pandemic – in short, to absorb a new social code being created in real time,” says Tarbox.  “What is acceptable to do, how should we be behaving, who is it OK to be with, and what is safe to share? ... Social media is where we pick up the cues and learn the rules.” 

Other information sources feed in, too, whether from reading articles, watching documentaries or observing passers-by, and they become our textbook for rapidly changing times. “We use others as data points,” says Romanoff. “Folks use this data to gauge how to make appraisals and assessments of their own lives. We are social creatures and rely on others in our tribe and community to refer to when making relativity-based judgments.”

Social media is where we pick up the cues and learn the rules – Laura Tarbox

Other people’s lives – whether a fly-on-the-wall TV medical documentary, a Facebook post about a friend’s Covid-19-stricken grandmother or the comments section of a news story announcing a record death toll – also provide a locus for collectively processing this unprecedented situation. Seeing others’ fears laid bare in a post, or validated by others liking or commenting on it, can have a calming effect, says Romanoff. She adds this is a process called “projective identification”. “Aspects of the self, like fear and dread, are split off and attributed to an external source, like a friend’s status update on Facebook or a catastrophic article with hundreds of shares,” she says. 

‘Storied beings’ 

Of course, too much news, social media or even fence-peeking can all be a bit much; when our cognitive processes are overtaxed trying to integrate distressing information into our internal worlds, it “only compounds and intensifies the stress and anxiety folks are already experiencing”, says Romanoff.  

But if you’re finding yourself scrolling through Instagram to see what friends are up to, watching programmes about frontline workers or reading articles on the pandemic’s mental health impact, these aren’t idle pursuits. Even if it’s unconscious, it’s a way of coping with the constraints of our times, processing our personal anxieties and making sense of our strange new world. 

“We're always looking to the Other because we're storied beings – because we make sense of our lives in relation to others,” says Chappell.