When gossip is good


When gossip is good

Speaking behind someone's back, telling tales, repeating rumours … gossip is bad, right? Not necessarily, says a whole raft of research into the topic. In fact, people engage in far less negative gossip than thought, and there are surprising upsides to certain kinds of ‘talking about people when they are not present', writes ANNELIESE BURGESS.


THERE are several commonly-held stereotypes about gossipers — that they are immoral, vindictive and mainly female.

A 2019 meta-analysis of gossip as a behaviour, authored by Megan Robbins, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California and published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, used five so-called “naturalistic observation studies" to decode the nature of what was found to be “a misunderstood behaviour".

Robbins and co-author Alexander Karan gave a sample of 467 people electronically activated recorders to wear then analysed the sound files of their daily conversations for gossip, valence (positive, negative and neutral), subject (acquaintance and celebrity), and topic (social information, physical appearance and achievement). 

What they found blows some of the stereotypes about gossip out of the water:

  • Women engaged in more neutral gossip than men.
  • Younger people gossiped more negatively than older people.
  • Most so-called gossip (defined broadly as talking about other people) tended to be neutral, rather than positive or negative, and about social information.
  • Of the 52 minutes a day, on average, the 467 subjects spent gossiping, three-quarters of that gossip was neutral.
  • Only 15% of conversations could be classified as negative gossip.

An earlier 1993 observational study also found that women spend more time (67%) on socially relevant topics than men (55%).

Conversation is a uniquely human phenomenon, and most conversations people have about other people, it seems, are benign and generic — what Robbins refers to as “talking about people who aren’t present”. And this, it would seem, is a critical component of socialisation, helping humans learn the rules of living in a culture and building community.

Learning through gossip

The evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar says gossip helped our ancestors survive. He compares human gossip to the grooming that primates engage in. Instead of picking fleas, we talk.

“Humans are members of the order primates, a large and diverse group of mammals of very ancient lineage. We belong to that subgroup of primates known as the catarrhines, the Old World monkeys and apes. We share with these monkeys and apes a deep sociality that is predicated on relatively (by comparison with other mammals and birds) advanced forms of social cognition."

This research paper by Roy Baumeister and two colleagues, titled Gossip as Cultural Learning, takes Dunbar's assertion a step further, saying gossip is primarily a means of gaining information about individuals and cementing social bonds.

“Psychology has not generally had much respect for gossip," it says. “The traditional and prevailing view has regarded it as an indirect form of aggression akin to teasing. In this, it has emphasised how gossip depicts the target in an unflattering light. Our impression is that most psychologists have regarded the motive to gossip as rooted in the malicious desire to harm others by damaging their reputation."

But, the authors say, we have to look at gossip beyond the definition of intentional maliciousness, or what they call “indirect aggression". It has a much broader role to play in teaching us how to live in our cultural society (but interestingly, they add, even negative gossip has a role in this regard).

“Gossip anecdotes communicate rules in narrative form, such as describing how someone else came to grief by violating social norms. Gossip is thus an extension of observational learning, allowing one to learn from the triumphs and misadventures of people beyond one’s immediate perceptual sphere. This perspective helps to explain some empirical findings about gossip, such as that gossip is not always derogatory and that people sometimes gossip about strangers.

“In our view, gossip is a potentially powerful and efficient means of transmitting information about the rules, norms, and other guidelines for living in a culture. On the surface, gossip consists of stories and anecdotes about particular other people, perhaps especially ones that reflect negatively on the target."

They say modern human society is a rapidly changing and highly complex system with many opportunities and unforeseen risks and problems. And “gossip" helps us navigate our way forward.

“Often neither the problem nor its solution can be foreseen reliably and safely. Individuals [have to] make their painful way through a problem’s shifting mazes through hard experiences. The way can be smoothed and softened, however, by learning about the adventures and misadventures of others. It is plausible [therefore] that in many cases, defamation of the target’s character is not the primary goal and may even be irrelevant."

David Ludden, professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College and the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach, says we are much more social than our evolutionary forebears, “so it can be very helpful to get information about people [from others] when this network is too big to observe by ourselves”.

The good in bad gossip

So if three-quarters of our “conversations about people who are not present" are benign and promote social cohesion, can what we traditionally refer to as negative gossip also play a role?

Yes, says Megan Robbins, the lead researcher of the 2019 naturalistic observation study. It helps people, for instance, understand what is socially acceptable. “If someone cheats a lot in a community or social circle and people start to talk about that person negatively, the collective criticism should warn others of the consequences of cheating. And as word near-inevitably trickles back to the source of the gossip, it can help to keep people in check, morally speaking.”

In this paper, Matthew Feinberg and colleagues from the University of Toronto look at how sharing negative information about someone can protect others from antisocial or exploitative behaviour. Their research showed that gossip can promote cooperation by spreading important information about negative or unacceptable behaviour.

It's a point emphasised in this paper, which states that “sharing information about an absent person is an important way of spreading reputational information, crucial in fostering human cooperation". But the authors distinguish between “honest gossipers" and  “dishonest gossipers". The latter are those who share false information about others for personal gain. Feinberg calls this bad gossip with no prosocial value — “purely harmful and serving no greater purpose", citing the example of comments about people's looks.

Feinberg's research highlighted one more positive aspect of gossip. He found that people's heart rates increased when they listened to information about antisocial behaviour or injustice. But their heart rates slowed when they could process this information by gossiping about it. The act of gossiping, Feinberg says, “helps to soothe the body”.

And then there is the social aspect of gossip that Dunbar equates so evocatively to grooming in primates. This study is based on five years of ethnographic research in New York. It found that older people living alone, without close family connections and who engaged in daily gossip about other people they encountered as regulars in local eateries, required less conventional social support. The act of gossiping, of chatter, acted as a highly effective buffer against loneliness by promoting emotional intimacy and caretaking. 

Hurtful gossip aimed at running other people down is bad. It doesn't take a PhD in psychology to know the nature of that form of tittle-tattle. But  “talking about others behind their backs" is a key element of healthy and functional human societies. So (positive) gossip away!

♦ VWB ♦

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