Gossiping, tattling, dishing, or less formally “tea”, are words that describe a certain type of social activity. It’s roughly defined as talking about other people’s private lives, typically in a negative or malicious way. It’s likely that most us have been on both sides of the gossip equation at some point in our life. We have probably been the gossiper, and the gossipped about.
Recently, and after being on the latter side of that equation (as I found out via a presumed loyal friend), I started to think about gossip a bit more seriously. After getting past the melodramatic feelings of offense and betrayal most exhibited by angsty teenagers in high school halls (as I told my self), I tried to think about it from a more objective perspective.
Why do people gossip? Who could it possibly benefit and why? Is it always immoral? Why did the friend that was invited to the tea party decide to tell me what was served? I decided to do some research and find some answers in hopes of gaining understanding and dispelling unproductive ruminations.
Gossip for social bonding
In his book Grooming, Gossip, and The Evolution of Language, psychologist Robin Dunbar associates gossip to social bonding. He compares the activity of sharing gossip to the reciprocal grooming observed in primates. Just like what mutual grooming is to chimps, gossiping is a tool that humans use to establish and maintain social relationships. Furthermore, not only does he argue that gossip is a social tool that utilizes language, but that it was one of the driving forces of the evolution of language itself.
Gossip, reciprocity, and social bonding is also the theme of a study conducted by Lea Ellwardt and her colleagues. It demonstrated that gossip can contribute to strengthening friendships and building cohesiveness in social networks. A way gossip can increase social bonding is by exploiting our tribal instincts. Gossip is usually composed of secretive or sensitive information. A gossiper who shares this information with another person would signal that the person is trustworthy to receive this information and not have that backfire to the gossiper. Therefore, a person with whom this information is shared is considered an insider, or “friend”. A person who this information is not shared with is then considered an outsider. In this fashion, gossip can facilitate social bonding by invoking the in-group/out-group dichotomy, which is an intrinsic human socially categorizing tendency. The study also demonstrated that gossipers tend to be more popular and that they tend to have a network of friends that are likey reciprocate in gossip.
Gossip for social comparison and status enhancement
Social comparison is our tendency to compare ourselves to others (in the absence of an objective measure) to locate ourselves in a given space or social network. For example, to determine our competence in a specific domain, we compare our skills to others around us to determine our relative competence. This can be applied to any variables like values, character, credentials, etc. As the psychologist, Joanne Wood, explains “social comparison is motivated not only by the need for self-evaluation but by the need for self-improvement, self-enhancement, and claiming a social identity as well.”
The gossip researchers Sarah Wert and Peter Salovey from Yale University suggest that gossip is a very effective tool for social comparison. Furthermore, gossip usually involves discussion of flaws, moral failings, unusual behavior or other failures to meet expectations calibrated to a personal point of view. Thus, it’s almost always a downward social comparison; functionally denigrating the gossiped about, and elevating the gossiper.
As mentioned above, social comparison is a tool to place ourselves in the world and facilitate our improvement or the enhancement of our status. Viewed through this lens, gossip is a selfish tool to enhance our status at the expense of others. Said a little differently, by shaming others, we deem ourselves more honorable.
This idea is confirmed by people’s tendency to care the most about gossip relating to people higher in any given hierarchy, specifically because it relates to our perceived location in it. This was the result of a study conducted by Frank McAndrew and his colleagues, demonstrating that people care more about negative news (misfortunes, scandals..etc) about people of either higher status or perceived rivals in a given domain. In other words, negative information about those perceived as lower in status is not as valuable or important.
In this manner, gossip can be viewed as a tool to increase our fitness to climb social hierarchies. We would be more likely to spread information that puts us ahead of other people, and less likely to spread information that increases their status or dominance over us.
Gossip to preserve group norms
On a more positive note, gossip can be utilized to teach, spread and preserve group norms and values. In this framework, gossip is not always derogatory. In the paper titled “Gossip as Cultural Learning” by Baumeister and her colleagues, the authors argue that gossip is composed of anecdotal descriptions of the acceptable cultural norms and values. The transmission of these anecdotes functionally transmits the rules and norms of that community.
Frank McAndrew further explores this idea by analyzing the conditions in which gossip would have been an adaptive practice with our prehistoric ancestors. Our cave-men relatives, he argues, would typically live in close and small communities. Within these communities, people still had to cooperate and compete for resources. In many cases, people had to work together to survive. For example, if a man was fortunate to have plenty of food, he would share with his neighbors. The cultural expectation would then be for his neighbors to reciprocate in times of need. This game played across time would form a community. However, not all members of a community are honorable. Some people “cheat”, and would not return the favors. Gossip in this context could’ve evolved as a mechanism to call out cheaters and free-riders in social games. So people would notice, remember, and spread the news about who to avoid and not trust in such circumstances. In other words, it’s a way to keep a record of a person’s history (reputation) to judge whether a person is deemed trustworthy or predictable, which is important if that person happens to be close to you.
I like understanding different phenomena from a scientific perspective because that allows me to view the subject through an objective framework. It allows me to reduce the subjective and emotional experience of something to a defined and constrained concept. That helps conjure up clarity and ease of mind. So instead of thinking of gossip as a malicious or vindictive tool, I now think of it as something that has both negative and positive functions in societies. Most cynically, it can be a selfish tool to enhance our self-image at the expense of others. However, it can also be an effective impersonal tool to socialize, maintain an alliance with a group, preserve group values, and spread culture.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (1996). Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Ellwardt, Lea & Steglich, Christian & Wittek, Rafael. (2012). The co-evolution of gossip and friendship in workplace social networks. Social Networks. 34. 623-633. 10.1016/j.socnet.2012.07.002.
McAndrew, F. T., Bell, E. K. and Garcia, C. M. (2007), Who Do We Tell and Whom Do We Tell On? Gossip as a Strategy for Status Enhancement. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37: 1562-1577. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2007.00227.x
Wood, J. V. (1989). Theory and research concerning social comparisons of personal attributes. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 231–248.