The Case for Gossip

Gossip is America’s real national pastime, and it does more good than you might think.

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You didn’t hear it from me, but gossip is good. Researchers believe it promotes more virtuous individual behavior, increases harmony within communities and even provides health benefits.

Yeah, we know. Gossip is supposed to be bad, right? Isn’t that what we’ve always been told?

Mary Ann Evans Cross (AKA author George Eliot), said, “Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco pipes of those who diffuse it; it proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker.” She must have been loads of fun at parties. Even George Harrison called gossip the “devil’s radio,” which really should have been the name of his next band.

Let’s all take a deep breath. It’s not gossip that’s immoral. Gossip just happens to be an efficient delivery system for an immoral activity—lying. What the scolds never mention is that gossip is also a tremendous delivery system for something else—justice.

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Jan. 9, 2012), a team of researchers including Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer made exactly this point. They looked at gossip from the angle of promoting the common good. The team defined gossip as “Communicating negatively about an absent third party in an evaluative manner.” They concede that gossip typically is viewed as trivial or antisocial. What they were interested in was good or “prosocial” gossip.

In a series of four experiments researchers used games in which players’ generosity with each other was measured by how many dollars or points they shared. Observers were allowed to let players know when someone unfairly hoarded points or dollars. The observers alerted (in effect, gossiped to) other players about the cheating, sometimes at economic cost to the observers. In one of the experiments the threat of being the subject of negative gossip led virtually all of the players to act more generously.

Prosocial gossip, the researchers believe, is critical to the reputation systems that help sustain fairness and cooperation in groups.

If this all sounds too goody-two-shoes to be the whole story, you’re right. Spreading pro-social gossip is not purely altruistic. The gossiper benefits, too. During the experiments observers’ heart rates increased when they witnessed cheating. Informing others they were the subject of unfair play calmed observers’ heart rates. The gossipers experienced both emotional and physiological relief.

Gossip—it does a body good.

This leads to an obvious question. How can someone tell the difference between prosocial gossip and the bad kind?

Researcher Willer told DAME that if you scrutinize your actions you can know whether you’re spreading information to help or hurt others. He said a self-aware person asks, “Do I have reliable information that the person I’m gossiping about really has done something wrong? And could the person I’m spreading this information to potentially be helped?”

So let your conscience be your guide, provided you have one, of course.

Fellow researcher Feinberg added that in most cases people probably do not know that they are engaging in prosocial gossip. They just feel compelled to do so.

One of Feinberg’s influences, British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, has a theory about evolution and gossip. During the process of human evolution, as our ancestors began to live in larger groups, they needed a means of keeping tabs on one another. Language and gossip in particular might have evolved to serve this function.

In other words, gossip, as well as not eating our young, separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It’s advanced. Gossip is a form of communication that requires the ability to observe an act, comprehend it, process information, form a judgment and communicate verbally. Your cat would totally gossip about you if it could. But it can’t, which is lucky for you and your sex life. Advantage: humans.

Today, said Willer, gossip might be one way in which social order is maintained. And, hey, no one wants to see the collapse of social order, except maybe someone who wants to sell aircraft carriers to Wyoming. Spreading information about people who behave badly lets friends and acquaintances know whom they can trust.

It was Alice Roosevelt Longworth who famously said, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” She wasn’t just being a saucy old broad when she said that. She was making the world a better place, one juicy piece of gossip at a time.

Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles. He publishes The Humor Columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

What the scolds never mention is that gossip is a tremendous delivery system for something else—justice.Joe Donatelli

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