Surprised? Gossip can have social and psychological benefits
It’s Monday morning and you can’t wait to hear the juicy details of your coworkers adventures this weekend. Or maybe the company had a barbecue and we’ve got to talk about who got a little too drunk, who made a pass at who, and whose kids are the cutest. Gossip has long been dismissed as hurtful at its worst and idle chatter at its best, but a new study suggests that gossip can have benefits: helping us police bad behavior, prevent exploitation, and lower stress.
“Gossip gets a bad rap, but we’re finding evidence that it plays a critical role in the maintenance of social order,” says UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a coauthor of the study published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (you can buy it here). The study also found that gossip can be therapeutic. “Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to make people feel better, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip,” Willer says.
The study focused on “prosocial” gossip that “has the function of warning others about untrustworthy or dishonest people,” according to Willer, as opposed to fodder for the tabloids. In a series of four experiments, researchers used four different game scenarios to analyze volunteer observers’ reactions to witnessing cheating. Observers’ heart rates increased as they witnessed the cheating, and most seized the opportunity to slip a “gossip note” to warn a new player that his or her contender was unlikely to play fair—even when they had to sacrifice their pay to do so.
Together, the results from all four experiments show that “when we observe someone behave in an immoral way, we get frustrated,” Willer says. “But being able to communicate this information to others who could be helped makes us feel better.”