Do you think that a bunch of colleagues chirping away at the water cooler are merely gossipers wiling their time away? You’d rather focus on the memo you have to turn in by the end of the day, wouldn’t you? Perhaps you should think again. By avoiding gossip, you could be missing out on crucial news. What if your company’s CEO is having a nervous breakdown? Maybe there’s hush-hush talk about imminent layoffs? Truth is, gossip isn’t all-bad. In fact, it’s necessary for our survival. At least, that’s what research over the last decade has concluded.
GOOD VERSUS BAD GOSSIP
It’s important to understand what researchers consider gossip. In the paper “Research on Gossip: Taxonomy, Methods, and Future Directions,” social psychologist Eric Foster wrote that, “In a context of congeniality, gossip is the exchange of personal information (positive or negative) in an evaluative way (or negative) about absent third parties.” Most researchers agree that much of gossip involves talking about “free riders” — individuals who are bad for the society.
A study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, last year demonstrated that gossip helps people exchange important information about intruders and unethical people within a community. Robb Willer, its co-author and an associate professor in the department of sociology at Stanford University, says, “Gossip gets a bad rap, but we found that much of what we call gossip is driven by a sincere desire to help others.”
Other researchers agree. “One key function of gossip is being able to learn about others and thus target those who are likely to be cooperators rather than defectors,” says Mark Laidre, a Miller postdoctoral fellow and biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “People cannot always observe or directly interact with others and so are reliant upon gossip as a source of information about their behavior.”
But of course, malicious gossip does exist. “Probably the biggest reason gossip has a bad reputation is that it certainly isn’t all positive. Malicious gossip is quite real,” says Willer. “Sometimes people gossip as a way to get back at their enemies or advance themselves. We suspect that its existence is the reason that gossip as a whole tends to be viewed negatively.”
WIRED TO GOSSIP
Let’s face it: Most of us are consumed with gossip, good or bad. One analysis shows that 65 percent of any conversation is just gossip; trivial but tantalizing stuff about other people and the world around us. This is even true for conversations digital in nature. A 2012 Georgia Tech study found that around 15 percent of work emails qualify as gossip.
According to the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, our brains and language have evolved to facilitate gossip. “In reality, the cognitive demands of gossip are the very reason why such large brains evolved in the human lineage,” Dunbar wrote in his 2004 paper “Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective.”
He explains that it’s important for primates (especially old-world monkeys and apes) to form large social groups to protect themselves from predators. However, maintaining large groups comes at its own set of costs — competition from other members and sacrificing one’s own interests for the sake of the group. Primates form alliances through social grooming to buffer themselves against this stress. But there’s a limit on how much time they can spend on grooming — there’s food to be found, after all. According to Dunbar, hominid groups began to push for language abilities to facilitate broader communication. Grooming can only achieve so much.
GOSSIP — GOOD FOR THE SOUL?
As we know, gossip can be both negative and positive. Willer’s group looked at prosocial gossip (the good kind) that helps with cooperation among a group’s members. Willer’s team conducted a series of experiments. In the first study, 51 participants were connected to a heart-rate monitor. Their heart rates were observed while they watched the scores of two players involved in a trust game. It was evident that one player was playing unfairly, and so the results showed that heart rates of participants went up when they witnessed the act of cheating; they gladly warned a new player through a “gossip note” that their competitor might be a cheat.
The results showed that heart rates went down as their frustration eased during the act of passing along gossip. “Engaging in gossip, warning another about this person, can temper their frustration and elevated heart rate. So, in this way, gossiping can make you feel better. You might even say it’s therapeutic,” says Willer.
In another experiment by the same team, participants gladly sacrificed a portion of their study pay to warn a new player about an unfair competitor. Willer adds, “We find in this series of experiments that the more generous and moral among us are most likely to pass on rumors about untrustworthy people, and they report doing so because they are concerned about the well-being of others.”
Results of Willer’s study also show that people are less likely to act selfishly when they know they are being observed and could be the subjects of gossip. Willer says, “The threat of gossip deterred individuals from behaving in a selfish way, in particular those individuals who would be most tempted to behave that way.”
GOSSIP IN THE WORKPLACE
In contemporary society, the use of gossip is more prevalent in the workplace than in any other setting. Kevin Kniffin, postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University, says there are generally two types of gossip found in organizations, including ones like sports teams: positive group serving and harmful self-serving. “Positive group-serving gossip could include talking about a co-worker who goes ‘above and beyond’ the regular call of duties (e.g., noting with admiration: ‘Did you see what so-and-so did?’). Harmful self-serving gossip is what people usually define gossip to be (e.g., derogating a co-worker with the goal of getting ahead of that person),” he explains.
In 2005, as part of a study, Kniffin signed up to join a university rowing team. During the study, Kniffin found that most of the gossip among the rowing team’s members centered on a slacker who would often miss practice. The performance of the group as a whole depended on how much effort every player invested into practice. So the slacker by default invited criticism. Kniffin’s slacker really is a free rider.
Kniffin says organizations which reward group-level performance tend to be places where gossip more often serves group interests, whereas workplaces that reward individual-level performance tend to be places that cultivate self-serving gossip. “An example of the former would be an airline company that establishes a bonus system for the on-time performance of airport ground units (e.g., rewarding airport units composed of baggage handlers for improvements in ontime-departure results),” he says.
A 2012 Dutch study showed that gossip facilitated friendship among co-workers who gossiped. Too much gossip, however, did not help people attract more friends.
GOSSIP RESEARCH — AND DAILY LIFE
Kniffin believes all of us can benefit from research on gossip. “It’s worth recognizing that people routinely engage in gossip … and so it’s worth understanding more about any functionality that it might serve and any conditions that might affect [gossip’s] functionality,” he says.
So, go ahead and gossip — it is good for your heart and may even help you land a top-notch career opportunity!