Sep. 18, 2012 at 2:16 PM ET
As Jennifer Marr watched the movie “Closer,” a scene struck her: The character Larry pushes his lover, Anna, to disclose everything she had done behind his back. While visibly pained, Larry insists on learning everything. This behavior puzzled Marr; why are some people so motivated to find out if others are gossiping or backstabbing?
To understand this phenomenon, Marr and her colleagues conducted several experiments, which looked at people who are highly interested in learning about gossip and backstabbing behavior and how it affects others. Marr, an assistant professor of the Scheller College of Management at the Georgia Institute of Technology, discovered that the more that people seek out information about backstabbing, the more likely that others will dislike them.
In one study, she asked people to self-report how motivated they were to seek out gossip about themselves; they also answered questions about paranoia. Those with higher motivation to discover backstabbing also exhibited more paranoia, although Marr stresses that no one demonstrated signs of clinical paranoia. But those more interested in learning about gossip and backstabbing showed some creepy behaviors, such as listening in on other people’s conversations, following them, or reading private emails.
“What we’re finding is that people who have this motivation, who seek out this info about whether people have harmed them, they are more likely to entertain paranoid ideas,” Marr explains.
But this becomes an endless cycle—the more motivated people are to find out if someone harmed them, the more likely they are to be paranoid, and the more likely they are to continue to investigate whether someone is acting behind their backs.
The researchers did not simply rely on self-reported data; they observed how people acted in groups. Prior to the experiment, the subjects rated themselves on how motivated they were to find out whether people gossiped about them. At the end of the observation period, the researchers asked individuals with whom they wanted to work. No one wanted to work with people who sought out gossip and backstabbing.
“What we found was that students who were higher in their motivation [to seek out people engaging in harm against them] were more rejected by their group,” Marr explains. “What we are seeing is that even though this is a motivation that someone has, others in their group are aware of it and they can tell who is like that and it makes them want to exclude that person.”
While people who seek out gossip might be more direct and certain in life, this behavior evokes anger in others.
“Their paranoid behavior violates norms of trust … and this violation triggers feelings of anger toward [them]. It is this anger that leads to social rejection,” Marr says.
The paper appears in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
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