It’s as compelling as a car wreck, irresistible as a whispered conversation at a nearby table. You indulge and then feel ashamed, like a dieter after dessert.
But maybe you don’t have to feel guilty after all.
Researchers say that a little bit of gossip is healthy. It's what keeps the culture going, greasing the social machinery.
It’s almost like being told that cigarettes are good for you.
“It’s a social skill, not a character flaw,” says Frank McAndrew a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. “It’s only when you don’t do it well that you get into trouble.”
To discover more about how gossip works — to learn who and what people are most likely to gab about — McAndrew rounded up 140 college students. He and his colleagues asked the 42 men and 98 women to read 12 brief fictional stories — the type that would be the perfect grist for gossip.
Some of the stories had positive subjects, such as a winning a major award or inheriting a large sum of money. Some of the stories revolved around negative themes, including drunken behavior, sexual promiscuity, gambling problems and academic cheating.
After reading each story, the students were told to rank how likely they would be to seek out more information depending on whether the scenario described a relative, a professor, an acquaintance, a friend, a stranger, an enemy or rival, or a romantic partner.
The results, recently published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, showed that the nature of the gossip controlled whether it was passed on. People generally were willing to share damaging, negative personal information when it involved a same sex rival. And they’d happily pass on good news only if it was about a friend.
Baby bump fascination
This result may help explain recent changes in the kinds of celebrity gossip women choose to read.
These days readers aren’t much interested in dirt, says Bonnie Fuller, chief editorial director of Star magazine. “Our readers love good news about celebrities,” she says. “They love to hear about romance, weddings, pregnancies, babies and births.”
Fuller suspects this is because a new type of woman is flipping through the pages of magazines like the Star. “They’re younger and more educated,” she says. “They’re working women who have jobs and families and kids. They view celebrities as part of their larger circle of friends. They want to read about drama in celebrity relationships because they relate to that in their own lives.”
But frankly, seeing the rich and famous caught sporting an extra few pounds makes everyone feel a little better about themselves, says Laura Johansson, a horse trainer in Mannington, N.J.
The 46-year-old says she and her closest friends do their serious trash talk while lounging in the hot tub sipping a glass of wine.
"You're bonding with your friends and it's the one time you can be outrageously judgmental," she explains. "When you're learning about the misfortunes of jerks, it makes you feel good. And when it's some good news about someone you like, you enjoy it vicariously."
There might be something else at work, too. McAndrew believes our brains are wired to gossip.
We feel pleasure whenever we share savory scraps of information because gossip helps build and cement connections with others, McAndrew explains. Besides, he says, those tidbits can be the tool people use to enforce unwritten societal commandments, like: Thou shalt not mooch off thy friends.
It doesn’t take long to spot a slacker, once people start to tell tales, McAndrew says.
That view resonates with Jeffrey Wilson, who normally wouldn’t think of himself as a gossip. The 27-year-old athletic trainer recalls standing on a railroad platform one day with two buddies. They were all waiting for a fourth friend who never turned up. After missing their train, the three started to compare notes. The no show, they learned, also tended to have a lot of emergencies and regularly needed to borrow money.
“We decided not to talk to him anymore,” says Wilson, of San Jose. “He’d done it for 10 years and we figured he had to learn that he couldn’t step all over us anymore.”
He said, she said
Another intriguing aspect of the new study: men and women gossip differently. Under most circumstances, the men in the study were much more likely to share savory snippets with romantic partners rather than male friends. Women were less selective, transmitting tasty tidbits to both lovers and friends.
This comes as no surprise to anthropologist Helen Fisher. It’s a leftover from way back when, when humankind still lived on the savannah, says Fisher, a professor at Rutgers University and author of “Why We Love.”
Men were out hunting, often alone, Fisher says. Women, on the other hand, needed to raise babies. They needed to build a network. Sharing information about others was a way to start and cement connections, she adds.
Knowing when to zip it
So, is all gossip good?
No, says McAndrew. Gossip is only good when people use it selectively for the good of their social group.
“It’s important to share information, but not indiscriminately,” he explains. “It’s bad when it serves no purpose but to ingratiate yourself with a group by saying awful things about someone else.”
This is something that rings true for Johansson, the horse trainer, who ruefully remembers a time — more than 20 years ago — when she indiscriminately used gossip to fit in. “I did it to get attention,” she says. “I wanted to be the storyteller in the group.”
Johansson’s indiscretions cost her. “The things I said hurt people,” she says. “I got kicked out of the group. It was a painful lesson. I’m very careful about what I pass along now.”
What kind of tidbits are still on the table?
“When it’s good news, that’s a no brainer,” says Johansson. “I’ll always share that. I’ll pass on negative stuff, too, but only when I think it’s going to protect a friend from harm.”