The Science of Gossip: A HealthCentral Explainer
Gossip. As much as we try to avoid it, that little itch that we love to scratch permeates almost every facet of our culture these days. From blogs on the Internet to primetime TV, we can’t get away from it--or enough of it.
But, is all gossip necessarily bad?
A study out of the University of California-Berkeley called “The Virtues of Gossip” published in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gossip can play the role of protecting others from being exploited by passing on information about bad behavior to warn others. They call this “pro-social gossip.”
Gossip didn’t always have a bad rap
Interestingly enough, the Old English origin of the word “gossip” was “godsibb,” meaning “god-sibling” or, what we call today a godparent. It was really used to express a close relationship or friendship. In the 16th century, the meaning took a turn for the worse, and was used to describe the not-so-nice chatter that occurred in the bedroom at the time of childbirth, where a pregnant woman’s female relatives and neighbors would gather (see also “yenta”).
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So, how does gossip make us better people?
Robb Willer, an assistant professor of sociology at Berkeley and a co-author of the study, says, “We sometimes need to trade information with third parties about people who aren’t around in order to learn from other people’s experiences.” By having the threat of being the object of gossip for doing something negative, people in the study tended to be kinder and more honest. People also tended to gossip when they felt someone was acting unfairly. Researchers conducting the study saw that the heart rates of those observing the individuals who were acting unfairly increased, and most took advantage of the opportunity to warn others about the “unfair” player. Again, gossip policing, which worked to keep people in line.
Can gossip get out of hand?
Yes, of course. If you feel slighted by someone (like a boss or a co-worker), and you gossip about it to other co-workers and friends instead of going directly to the object of your gossip, you’re problem or slight will remain unresolved, causing more psychological harm. Further, there is a thin line between gossip and bullying – and we all know the effects of bullying.
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The bottom line
It’s hard to imagine that gossip will ever be able to restore its good name of “godsibb,” but the California study presents an interesting take on how gossip can help us govern ourselves socially and civilly. The problem we face is not in gossip itself, but how we choose to wade through the maze of helpful gossip and talk that’s just plain mean or untrue.
The New York Times. (15 June 2012). “Studies Find That Gossip Isn’t Just Loose Talk.” Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/16/your-money/studies-find-gossip-isnt-just-loose-talk.html?pagewanted=all
The Verge. (19 April 2012). “Nielsen: dramas most popular primetime TV, but reality shows win on product placement.” http://www.theverge.com/2012/4/19/2960515/nielsen-report-drama-most-popular-primetime-genre