The Upside of Gossip: A Critical Dissection

Updated on February 1, 2017

Gossip came into existence with the advent of human society. Anthropologically, it has undergone evolutionary changes over many generations. It has evolved into a social skill through many generations of human societies. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our preoccupation with the lives of others is a byproduct of a prehistoric brain.

Primates indulge in grooming, which is considered by primatologists to be akin to gossip. Apes and monkeys spend many hours stroking one another's furs, picking flea and tick from the fellow’s coat. It appears that grooming is the key to primate group life as most species of apes and monkeys live in groups. Similarly, gossip appears to be an innate part of social behavior of humans. As all social behaviors evolve with the passage of time, so has gossiping.

Primarily, gossip is idle talk or rumor about the personal or private affairs of others. It is sometimes specifically referred to the spreading of misinformation about others through excited and animated discussions. For a number of reasons that are not clear, gossip has acquired a decidedly shady reputation. It is seen as malicious, destructive, and largely reprehensible.

According to primatologist Robin Dunbar of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, gossip is not always bad. Instead, he says that gossip has been selected by evolution as a way to hold large human groups together.

Malicious gossip is quite real. Sometimes people gossip as a way to get back at their enemies or advance themselves but there is enough evidence that gossip has an upside.

According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a lot of gossip is driven by concern for others and has positive, social effects. In fact, pro-social gossip can effectively deter selfishness and promote cooperation. It can act to warn others about untrustworthy or dishonest people.

But, contrary to a general belief that all gossip is malicious and harmful, it has certain positive effects on the people as well as society, some of which are mentioned below:

It helps understand a situation – Many a time, people don’t gossip about people but a situation that has become untenable, which can make us worked up. Such situations quite often arise in workplaces and offices. In fact, gossiping in these situations gives us an opportunity to understand them better as others may provide informational inputs that may be useful.

It strengthens human bonds - Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plon, Germany report that gossip and rumors are actually a way humans solidify and strengthen bonds and reinforce group relationships. They also found that people cooperate more with people about whom they hear positive gossip than with people about whom they hear negative gossip.

We respond more to rumors about people who share our gender and are in our age group. We tend to spread positive rumors about friends while sharing negative news of people, we consider high status.

It encourages co-operation – Researchers have found that sharing reputational information could have a positive effect on society. It can encourage co-operation and stop nice people from being exploited. It has been found that groups that allow their members to gossip sustain co-operation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t.

It promotes self-improvement – It has been found that even when the gossip is negative, mostly there is a possibility of positive output for those about whom it is meant. According to a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, gossip serves self-evaluative functions for gossip receivers and triggers self-conscious emotions. It showed that positive gossip had higher self-improvement value than negative gossip, whereas negative gossip had higher self-promotion value and raised higher self-protection concerns than positive gossip.

It gives a reality check – If people, who are victims of gossip, analyze it dispassionately, they will find that it provides a reality check. A reality check can encourage a person to make positive changes even if it is based on a negative gossip.

The bottom line –

It appears that we are hardwired for gossiping. A study published in the Journal Social Neuroscience this past January shows that when we hear either naughty celebrity gossip, or naughty gossip about friends, our brains light up in the area known as the caudate nucleus, which is responsible for pleasure.

The study also reveals that hearing scandalous gossip about a good friend activates another part of our brains, which is responsible for self-control. This suggests we often try to hide our “pleasure” in hearing anything salacious about our friends and neighbors.

So, the reason that we all enjoy gossip is that it gives pleasure. And this further entices us to spread gossip but salacious enjoyment is quite short-lived. This is so called negative gossip that we have learned to shun as it is hurtful and malicious. Everyone knows that gossip travels very fast and ultimately reaches the person who is its victim. Contrary to this, there is an upside of gossip as well and it may have some positive effects on people who are targeted, if they try to understand it with a positive frame of mind. They can use it as a reality check against, which they can make certain positive changes in or around themselves.

References -

  1. The virtues of gossip: Reputational information sharing as pro-social behavior. Feinberg, Matthew; Willer, Robb; Stellar, Jennifer; Keltner, Dacher, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 102(5), May 2012, 1015-1030.
  2. Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language R. I. M.Dunbar - Harvard University Press - 1996 Volume: 40 issue: 12, page(s): 1668-1680
  3. Volume: 40 issue: 12, page(s): 1668-1680 Article first published online: October 24, 2014; Issue published: December 1, 2014 DOI: https://do i.org/10.1177/0146167214554916 Elena Martinescu1, Onne Janssen1, Bernard A. Nijstad1University of Groningen, The Netherlands
  4. The ugly truth: negative gossip about celebrities and positive gossip about self entertain people in different ways Xiaozhe Peng, You Li, Pengfei Wang, Lei Mo, and Qi Chen Social Neuroscience Vol. 10 , Iss. 3,2015
  5. Proc. R. Soc. B (2008) 27 , 2529–2536 doi:10.1098/rspb.2008.0762 Published online 29 July 2008



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    • threekeys profile image

      Threekeys 

      17 months ago from Australia

      To gossip? Is definitely an artform, a sharp skill set. Personally, I have only seen the malicious side of gossiping. Nothing good has ever come out of gossiping. I have seen many people's lives ruined. While I am for conversation and sharing of ideas and interests, I am not for maliciously damaging another person's reputation or life because I can and I get a kick out of it.

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