Yes, you read right. Recent research does actually offer a positive spin to this age-old practice — one that goes beyond the rumours and tall tales
Gossip gets a bad rap these days. We tend to see it as meaningless chitchat or malicious rumour that can and, sadly, has ended in outright bullying and even suicide. To be called a gossip is an insult and spreading news about others is somehow apologised for in conversation (for example, ‘I don’t like to spread rumours but…’ or ‘you didn’t get this from me but…’). In the TV show Gossip Girl, the voiceover for the infamous website is given a snide sarcastic tone in line with the expected audience attitudes. Indeed, scientific surveys on the perception of those who spread gossip suggest we see them as weak and less likeable.
Yet gossip is ubiquitous — it is seen in all societies and can be identified in texts throughout history. The term itself has been in use since the 16th century. Today, the success of TV channels such as E! Entertainment and TMZ is evidence that gossip in the modern world has gone beyond social banter to be the basis for powerful empires. The reality is that the great majority of our conversations revolve around sharing news of other people. And that is true of both genders: there is no current evidence to suggest the frequency of ‘social focused talk’ is any lower in men than in women.
At its basis, according to those studying this phenomenon, gossip is defined as ‘evaluative conversation about others’. As such it is likely to be equally negative or positive news or simply neutral fact-sharing about what our distant friends and family have been up to. So although negative gossip can give us a delicious sense of schadenfreude, positive news is equally rewarding and informative, especially if the positive news is about someone connected to us; we can bask in some of that reflected glory and enjoy passing on the message.
Psychologists and other social scientists have begun to study this topic as one with not only a universal history but also which almost certainly has some evolutionary or social function. An initial theory supported by several researchers is that gossip maintains group cohesion and can act as a tool for keeping social order. Humans live and work as social animals. Gossip is the ultimate social activity as it involves talking with people, about people. So the act of gossiping may be similar to that of ‘grooming’ seen in primate species in that it consolidates group cohesion, facilitates networking and manages reputations.
Moreover, our survival depends in many ways on forming alliances and promoting group success. We are strong believers in fair distribution and just treatment and we have an innate tendency to dislike those who cheat the system. Gossip, therefore, may be a kind of policing mechanism: studies show that knowing our efforts within the social group may be gossiped about keeps us on the straight and narrow. We put more effort into a group task as a result to ensure any talk about us is positive.
This is reflected in studies on workplace gossip where it may encourage individual performance in teams whose overall rewards depend on group efforts. Although this system may seem open to exploitation from people spreading false information, there is the parallel tendency to ostracise those who are found to use gossip for their own purposes. This then acts as a deterrent for those wishing to abuse this natural mechanism. Indeed, even with the obsession over celebrity gossip, we may draw a line between the collaborative and benign gossip of E! News and the more malicious actions of some paparazzi.
Other perspectives on gossip focus on the potential learning and cognitive function. It is important for us to quickly and efficiently understand the world around us. As such we may look to the information spread via gossip to help us establish social and cultural norms, understand what is and is not acceptable behaviour or make decisions about who is friend or foe. For example, when we hear gossip about a person’s situation, the valence or attitude of the message will tell us how we ourselves are expected to behave. Certainly the sort of gossip spoken in hushed tones conveys a clear message of what is considered taboo (“X is having an affair”, “X swore at the manager”, “Did you see what X was wearing?” etc).
This explanation also fits with the modern phenomenon of celebrity gossip. Evolutionary explanations for gossip focus on its role in helping us understand the people within our community. However, celebrities are people we are never likely to meet. Therefore, the learning explanation — using gossip as a way to know how to behave — justifies the impact of celebrity gossip, especially on young people. Celebrity interest is highest in younger age groups who may still be developing a sense of identity, values and beliefs. Celebrities become role models and their behaviour is observed largely through gossip-centred media. This idea is further supported by a recent model of personality and gossip which found that people with a less clear sense of self or who depend more on external cues to manage their values and actions have the highest tendency to spread or listen to gossip.
Recently, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, referred to ‘pro social’ gossip, negative comments about a person’s past behaviour but which are passed on with positive intentions of warning your friends. When we hear bad things about people we haven’t yet met, we are necessarily cautious about our dealings with them. While this could, of course, lead to malicious and unfair treatment, it can also be an important way of stopping us from being taken advantage of or aligning with the wrong crowd.
In fact, gossip can have a real effect on what we attend to at the basic cognitive level. In a recent experiment led by graduate students Eric Anderson and Erika Siegel at Boston’s Northeastern University, faces paired with negative gossip (but not positive or neutral messages) were either missed or not processed as much as other faces. Our brains are using the communicated information to pick out who we should and should not bother paying attention to.
So it seems gossip is here to stay: it is hardwired into our thinking and social learning processes. Though the word has adverse connotations, at the heart it is simply conversation focusing on others — conversations that may help us maintain social ties, manage our own reputations or decide how to behave and who to connect with.
So don’t be too hard on yourself next time you pick up a gossip mag at lunchtime or secretly switch from World News to E! News. You just may learn something.
(Dr Annie Crookes is head of Psychology, Heriot-Watt University Dubai Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)