Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 10.15.08

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” “Don’t gossip with friends; it only tells them that you’ll also talk behind their back.” Proverbs or bad advice?

It’s true that gossip can be hurtful, petty, and even demeaning. But, according to this article in Scientific American MIND, it is also a useful part of our evolutionary history, bonding us to confidants and aiding us in social success and survival.

The article points out that our ancestors lived in small communities, without the travel and technology resources that we now have. They had to learn to survive (economically, socially, etc.) with the same small group of people for their entire lives. Social intelligence was likely key to success under such circumstances.

And evidence suggests that gossip is valuable in modern times as well. A study by Roy F. Baumeister of FSU shows that gossip is helpful in regard to learning unwritten social rules and develping group norms.

What about society’s fascination with pop culture? It’s cool to say you’re “above” following the latest gossip on Britney Spears, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. But historically, people that we see often and know a lot about are socially important to us. Is it possible that the desire to follow celebrity gossip is merely a collision of the advent of fame with our evolutionary instincts?

The article concludes:

When gossip is discussed seriously, the goal usually is to suppress the frequency with which it occurs in an attempt to avoid the undeniably harmful effects it often has in work groups and other social networks. This tendency, however, overlooks that gossip is part of who we are and an essential part of what makes groups function as well as they do. … Successful gossiping is about being a good team player and sharing key information with others in a way that will not be perceived as self-serving, and about understanding when to keep your mouth shut.”

Do you agree?

Gossip: Does it have valuable functions, or is it a useless and even harmful phenomenon?

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38 Comments

  1. To an extent, gossip is necessary to communicate certain relevant information between groups. Beyond that (i.e., relevance), I think that whereas most people do not appreciate being gossiped about, gossip is generally harmful and does not encourage cohesion. Even so, we do not live in the small communities our ancestors lived in. I think we already live in a world that fosters too much “team hatred” – that irrational game of us v. them – and gossip only serves to perpetuate that dynamic, rather than bond us together.

  2. I was part of a group recently in which one member was clearly taking more than she gave (as the article puts it). There was some gossiping between the rest of us. I think it’s possible that the gossiping reinforced the unwritten social rules of our group and helped us establish group norms.

  3. @Old Geezer: I don’t think truth should be the only prerequisite for the sharing of information . Whether accurate or not, some information is just none of our business (i.e., not relevant) in a given context (i.e., work, blog, etc.) And contrary to what the article posits, there is no useful purpose of the dissemination of such information – the “unwritten social rule” learned from gossip is keep to yourself or you too will have your own private life paraded out to everybody. I think it’s best to follow The Golden Rule when deciding whether or not to engage in gossip.

    By the way, did you all hear about Stacey’s dog?

  4. I have to admit, everything I learned about gossipping I learned as a waitress. Before that I lived a life that shunned all forms of gossip. I agree with detrioutus in that there probably is a difference between sharing information and gossip. Truth may factor in. Where do you draw the line about gossip not being relevant, especially in work situations?

    For the most part I don’t care about other people’s drama… unless it affects the workplace… for example: managers who sleep with coworkers and give preferential treatment as a result… and this happens in pretty much every job out there… there is a certain ‘right-to-know’

    I also have encountered scenarios in that any work discussion is dismissed as gossip/poor attitude by management that does not want people on the bottom rung discussing and questioning corporate decisions. In this sense, when information sharing is dismissed as a form of insubordination, then All workers are shafted.

    So basically, I still avoid gossip, but I have grown to see its usefulness… if discussion/information sharing is dismissed as gossip in a sexist manner, or to keep people subordinate, then we have a problem. If gossip is used to hurt someone, as an inaccurate weapon, then we also have a problem.

  5. “sharing key information with others in a way that will not be perceived as self-serving”

    That end part, I think, is the distinction. Gossip is fine and dandy unless it is malicious.

    And sometimes things get called gossip when they really are just sharing information. “She just got divorced, maybe we should tread carefully around her today.”

  6. Posting without reading the rest. Firstly, the listener always has a responsibility to evaluate the information they’re given.

    I think the intent of the person doing the gossiping plays a large part in acceptability. If the information doesn’t benefit anyone in being passed on, it’s probably useless (i.e., what/who Paris Hilton did last weekend). Also, I think it depends on the level of evidence to back up the information. Where did this information come from? Does the gossiper have reason to dislike the person? Etc.

    Furthermore, negative information, while unfortunate, can still be true and you may want to share this information with others if you think it’s relevant to them. Also, not all gossip is bad — I think there’s just negative connotations to the word. We might talk about some accomplishment of a person we know. That’s a form of gossip, we just wouldn’t necessarily call it that.

    So, yes gossip is harmful and yes it is useful.

  7. Communication is communication. Being rude is being rude. Is it gossip when the communication in question does not involve the person being talked about and becomes rude or back stabbing, or condescending, or belittling or whAT everrrrr… ??

  8. Hi there!

    I’m not a huge gossip. Maybe if I really despise a person, I’ll repeat something bad that I’ve heard about them without checking my references, (Bad Librarian!) but I’ll never consciously invent lies about another person.

    However, in our new and enlightened age, with web sites like Snopes, text-messaging, and Web 2.0 communities, I think it’s tougher for FALSE gossip to get around. Sooner or later, someone calls you on your bullshit. That’s why I’ve gotten into the habit of qualifying any statement that I make about someone whenever I say something unflattering about that person.

    “Look, I’m not 100% sure about this fact, and I could be totally wrong about this, but I’m pretty certain that George W. Bush murders innocent puppies …”

    I keep hoping that anyone spreading the rumors will be sure to include this caveat.

  9. Good, bad or ugly, I think humanity will give up gossip right after we stop caring about social interaction. Part of the value of gossip is simply the bonding experience of talking about something with another person informally.

  10. I really like where you’re going with this, Stacey, and the questions you’re asking. The majority of us were probably raised to believe that gossip was bad, but I appreciate the objective observation of social practices. Maybe gossip isn’t “bad”?? It’s worth thinking about.

  11. I was recently reminded of one of the good functions of gossip – it’s about sharing information, and it can spread quickly. Which means you can get important, urgent information out very quickly through a gossip network, and know it’s going to reach the vast majority of people who need to hear it in an emergency.

    Sure, most things you gossip about are not urgent, but it keeps the lines of communication open for when you do need to pass important information.

  12. Anyone else think this research is a bit dodgy?

    What does this ‘Science’ predict? “That people like to gossip”. Its looking at the modern world (by which I mean the last 10,000 years) and making a prediction backwards in time about human behaviour that conviently can’t be disproved AND handily agrees with present-day prejudices about the prevalence of gossip and/or it’s importance.

    I could just as easily claim: “Pre-historic humans didn’t gossip because they were too busy thinking about hunting lunch, we only gossip today because we have too much lesuire time”

  13. @russellsugden: That’s a good point, Russell, and exactly the type of inquiry we’re supposed to do on this site. I think the only actual study cited in the article was the FSU study that showed that gossip can reinforce acceptable behavior and assist in developing group norms. No corroborating studies were cited. The rest was based on evolutionary psychology, which many feel is a sketchy science.

  14. Anthropology and sociology allow us to observe human behavior without stigma or stricture. It seems notable to me that despite the timeless indoctrination regarding the distasteful practice of gossip, we continue to practice it. Therefore, as a layperson even I can see the value in researching its worth to society since it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. And as long as it follows the scientific method, I think this research is worthwhile. This is how we learn and grow as a group, a race.

  15. Gossip is both good and bad. How else can the single girls tell each other which guy is dangerous to go out with (history of violence or can’t understand No means no?) and which guy is worth a try.

    But there are also so much false rumors and gossip flying around, and that is mostly harmless, but every now and then, the gossip destroys someones life or self esteem or relationship.

  16. I think we need to outgrow, as a species, the “in group”/”out group” mentality, and live together with love, respect, and understanding.

    It may be genetically predisposed, and may have served a function in the past, but the, as far as we know, unique quality of the human species allows us to transcend our genetic limitations and outgrow darwinian brutality.

  17. Gossip is a rather loaded word. There’s various bits of game theory that point to a group being unable to ferret out cheaters often enough for altruism to take root unless there is broad sharing of information about the behavior of other agents-which could be called gossip. It makes sense-I’m only going to start being liberal in my requirements for repayment or the like if I can count on getting information about who in the group is liable to screw me over.

    Now, does the fact that the evolution of good manners demands that we get intelligence about group members have all that much to do with your less-than-friendly neighborhood busybody, saturating his/her fellows with often hypocritical and always intrusive data about whatever behavior they’ve spotted that falls outside their tiny moral bubble? Nope. Not really.

  18. Gossip appears to be an important mechanism by which people’s reputations are negotiated within a group; and reputations are essential for the establishment of trust and cooperative behavior. If false information gets circulated by gossiping then that’s the fault of the persons who started it and those who uncritically pass it on, not something inherently wrong with gossip itself.

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