Your sister just got a tattoo that’s going to make your parents flip out. A coworker took all the credit for a project you both worked on in a meeting with your boss. You find out your friend’s ex is cheating on his new partner.
If you think you’d feel the urge to share this type of news if you heard it, you’re probably right. That’s because we’re human beings and sharing information about one another is part of what we do, explains Frank T. McAndrew, Ph.D., the Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois: “Everyone gossips.”
It’s pretty generally accepted among social scientists (at least those who accept the theory of evolution) that gossip is likely a relic of our evolutionary past, McAndrews tells NBC News BETTER. In order to survive and pass along your genes it has pretty much always been necessary to know about the lives of those around you: who had powerful friends, who was sleeping with whom, who had limited resources, and who might stab you in the back when times got tough.
That knowledge helped people get ahead socially; and people who were not interested in it were at a disadvantage, McAndrew says. “They were not good at attracting and keeping mates, or maintaining alliances. The ones who weren’t interested in the goings on of other people sort of got weeded out.”
Read: That urge to share a juicy piece of news when you hear it is part of who we are and a natural characteristic of the species we’ve become.
We tend to think of gossip as a negative behavior — when, for instance, we tattle on someone or share information behind someone else’s back that may show them in a bad light. But it’s really not, McAndrew says.
By definition (at least the definition social scientists who study gossip use), gossip is any talk about someone who isn’t present, it’s usually about something we can make a moral judgment about (meaning you tend to approve of the information or disapprove), and it’s entertaining (meaning it doesn’t feel like work to do it; you tend to want to share or hear the information), McAndrew explains.
It's not inherently bad; and plays an important role in keeping our society connected.
Gossiping isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it depends on the context
In a study published earlier this year in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science 467 adults wore electronic recorders over the course of two to five days, which collected samples of their verbal conversations over that time period. The researchers listened to the sound files of the totality of those conversations and anything they classified as gossip (any talk about other people who weren’t part of the conversation) was coded as either positive, negative or neutral according to a standardized scale.
It’s just social information and we learn a lot about the social world around us when we gossip.
Megan Robbins, Assistant Professor of Psychology at UC, Riverside
The data showed that nearly everyone in the study gossiped (only 34 individuals out of the 467 did not gossip at all). Most gossip was coded as neither positive or negative — the majority of gossip recorded in this study (75 percent) was neutral. Women engaged in more neutral gossip than men, but the amount of negative and positive gossip shared among men and among women was fairly consistent. And overall people who were more extroverted tended to gossip more than those who were more introverted.
The data is limited in that it only looked at one group of individuals, but what was found in this sample backs up what McAndrew and others have found when they’ve studied gossip: it’s about communicating information about the world we live in and most of us do it, explains lead study author Megan Robbins, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “It’s just social information and we learn a lot about the social world around us when we gossip.”
What makes gossip good, bad or neutral is how we use the information, not the content of the news itself, McAndrew says. “Gossiping is a social skill.”
A good gossiper is someone who people trust with information and someone who uses that information in a responsible way. When you find out the person your friend has a crush on has a bad reputation for cheating, you let your friend know, not to hurt your friend, but as a warning. You find out someone in your company is not a team player and you let other coworkers know so that they can try to avoid working with that colleague.
Key is that you’re sharing information in an appropriate way that’s helping others.
A bad gossiper, on the other hand, is someone who shares information about others in order to get ahead or get an advantage themselves, or just plain recklessly. Others don’t tend to trust “bad” gossipers with information when they have it. You can’t keep your mouth shut that your friend’s marriage is on the fritz; you let your entire circle of friends know that another friend did poorly on a big exam.
Science suggests gossip can be a source for good and help maintain social order
And research has indeed shown that a lot of gossip has both positive effects and moral motivations, explains Robb Willer, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Polarization and Social Change Laboratory at Stanford University, who studies the social forces that bring us together and drive us against one another, including gossip.
Studies from his group have shown that the more generous and moral among us are most likely to pass along rumors about untrustworthy people, and they report doing so because they are concerned about helping others. They call this type of gossip “prosocial gossip” because it serves to warn others — which has the effect of lowering overall exploitation in groups, Willer says. “A lot of gossip is driven by concern for others and has positive, social effects.”
Work from his group has also found that engaging in gossip can actually temper some of our frustrations and other negative emotions we feel when we find out someone has behaved in a deviant way. (A coworker unfairly gets a promotion. Even though the friend you meet for lunch after this happens has never met that coworker, you still tell that friend all the reasons your colleague didn’t deserve the new position.)
And his team has found that gossip is actually one of the forces that promotes cooperation among groups, too. Experiments his team have done suggest that the threat of being gossiped about deters untrustworthy behavior; once people have been gossiped about for behaving in an untrustworthy way, they tend to reform their behavior; and gossip helps people know who to avoid and not trust.
Together the evidence suggests that gossip may play an important role in maintaining social order, Willer says. “Spreading rumors about people who have behaved badly allows our friends and acquaintances to know who to trust. … And the threat of gossip deters bad behavior in the first place as people seek to avoid developing a bad reputation.”
Yes, you can get better at gossiping (for good)
Here’s how to make sure you’re gossiping in a responsible, trustworthy way:
1. Think twice before you do it
Whether you’re gossiping in a responsible way or not is all a matter of when you’re doing it and with whom you’re sharing the information, McAndrew says. Are you stabbing someone in the back by telling that story? Is that news going to stop something bad from happening?
2. Don’t gossip for personal gain
If you’re doing it for your own personal gain, don’t, Willer says. It’s probably not doing anyone any favors. “The form of gossip we’ve found beneficial is negative gossip about people who have behaved in an antisocial way,” Willer says.
3. Don’t distort information
Tell it like it is. Leave the exaggeration at the door, Willer says. “People often exaggerate what they pass on to make a better or more coherent story — or to justify why they are speaking about someone.”
That’s not a responsible way of sharing information. “Gossip doesn’t do a lot of good if its informational content is unreliable,” he says.
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