In its most straightforward form, gossip is simply talking about someone who isn’t present. It can happen through cupped hands into an ear, under industrial-strength blowdryers, via Slack at your office, or, really, in any number of other ways. But, fact remains that it certainly happens and nearly all people engage in it (or at least have done so in the past). But before you you bemoan the seedy nature of humanity given this reality, note that scientific research disagrees wit the dictionary’s negative-leaning specification that in order for material to be classified as gossip, it must be inclusive of sensational and/or highly personal facts. According to one extensive meta-analysis on gossip published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, gossip is often neutral or even positive, as in, not necessarily “reflecting badly on the target.” So, that’s good news, but I’m still left to wonder, Why do people gossip in the first place?
“When it’s something light and fun, it can help people feel like they belong, because they share relationships, have shared experiences, and often shared values,” says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. This explains why it’s so satisfying to dish with a colleague about two other co-workers who are probably-definitely dating—even if you have no personal connection to anyone involved. The act allows us to form memories (even if they’re micro in terms of depth and importance) with whomever we’re sharing the gossip, which in turn, fosters a sense of belonging.
What gossip mostly is, though, is cultural learning, something that helps shape what behavior we find acceptable or unacceptable. Perhaps that’s why one 2011 study found that our brains tend to focus on those who do troublesome things. For the experiment, participants looked at the face of someone they didn’t know and then learned a piece of gossip about them. What researchers found is that participants focused longer on the faces of people who did bad things, but not those who simply had bad things happen to them. In this sense, gossip turns into a tool that helps us filter whom to befriend and avoid—without doing any of that legwork to discover what you actually think. (And, um, you should try and still do that legwork if possible).
“When gossip is light and fun, it can help people feel like they belong, because they share relationships, have shared experiences, and often shared values.” —clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD
The implications here aren’t necessarily bad—but they can be. “Gossip can help enforce social norms, both for good and bad,” says Dr. Daramus “If we know we’ll be talked about, we might control our behavior a little more. This can help prevent problems. But if you take it too far, it can be dehumanizing.” That’s because if you’re at the center of something negative—and at some point, you surely will be—your rough break up becomes someone else’s exciting news. You make a small mistake, and somehow everyone not only knows but is deriving sick enjoyment from breathing new life into it by continually talking about it. Soon, it’s easy for all people involved—the gossipers and source of gossip—to forget that none of the exchanges paint a full picture of whatever the person is going through.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to simply put idle (and often harmful) chitchat to bed. “People are worried about the consequences of disagreeing with the group,” Daramus says. “Gossip can bond people, but where there’s an in-group, there’s someone left out. Gossip can be a way of letting people know who’s not in.”
To wit, the light side of gossip can bring people together. The dark side of gossip can cut people off with knife-like precision. But the psychological reason we do engage in it at all is to reinforce our own cultural values…which, largely, end up being neutral.
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